Jane Ingram
Excerpts

An Excerpt from Touched By Angels

 

PART ONE

Chapter One

September 1st, 1939, London

In November, 1918, the Great War ended. Ten million men and women died, of whom three-quarters of a million were British. Left behind to mourn were the widows, sisters, brothers, fathers, and mothers. Forty-one thousand men lost one or two limbs, faces were scarred beyond recognition, and shell-shocked men never regained their full mental capacity. Prayers were loud and clear from the pulpit to callused knees in bedrooms that this should never happen again.

Only twenty-one years of peace elapsed before another war was imminent. Hitler’s maniacal desire to control all of Europe caused angst in the British government. Austria, Czechoslovakia and part of Lithuania had already been invaded. The British government’s warning to him not to invade Poland went unheeded. Long before Churchill became Prime Minister, he warned Parliament that the Treaty of Versailles had already been violated by the Germans, who had been building their armaments and were now implementing their dominance.

On September 1, 1939, Neville Chamberlain announced that England had declared war on Germany. A country not yet healed from the scars of the Great War once again had to endure another war.

Lessons learned from the Great War caused the British government to plan well in advance in the event of another war. Operation Pied Piper was one of these plans, conceived of, as far back as l931, designed to evacuate children from urban areas in the event of aerial bombings. Within the first three days of the declaration of war, three and half million people, including school-aged children, mothers with young children, pregnant women, disabled people, and hospital patients, would be evacuated.

Weeks before the evacuation, BBC Radio laid out the plans for the parents to follow once the declaration of war was announced. Only one suitcase or knapsack would be allowed for each child. A list of the items to be packed was very specific: One extra set of clothing, a sweater, pajamas, underclothes, and a second pair of shoes, a handkerchief, a towel, soap, a comb, and a toothbrush. Each child was to wear a sturdy pair of shoes and an overcoat. All their belongings were to be marked with their name. Some dried foods were allowed but absolutely no liquids or greasy foods were to be packed. The dreaded gas mask had to be packed in its square cardboard box with a string for carrying it over their shoulders.

No more than an evening’s notice would be broadcast naming the schools where the students were to assemble the following morning. Parents were to bring their children to the school, but were instructed to say their goodbyes outside the school gates.

Each teacher had their instructions as to which train station they were to proceed to. Some schools were provided with bus service while others were escorted by their teachers on foot. All over the city, long trails of paraded children, in double-file, caused traffic snarls at every intersection. Remarkably, the drivers were patient, as this was something never seen before in England.

 

For David Blamley’s last night, Lady Constance Goodley Boxley organized a dinner for him so that he could say his goodbyes to the people he had known as his “family” for the past nine years. David’s father, Owen, was the aide to Major-General Sir Walter Goodley, a retired military man called back into service six months prior to the declaration of war. It was his daughter, Lady Constance, who had secured the position for Owen through the agency she set up to volunteer her time to find employment for wounded veterans from the Great War.

After dinner of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, roasted potatoes and Brussel spouts, with a trifle for dessert, all of David’s favorites, the staff of the house in St. John’s Wood were invited into the formal dining room for their farewell to him. Normally all of David’s meals were taken downstairs, but on his last night at home Lady Constance wanted it to be a special occasion. Mrs. Cleary, the head housekeeper, Mrs. Dancer, the cook, Mr. Hodkins, the butler, and Dorothy, the undermaid, all stood in line wiping their eyes as David went to each one to shake their hands. Mrs. Cleary pulled him to her for a tight hug. “Ye be a good boy, ye hear, now. Maybe ye can send us a wee line to let us know how ye are getting on.”

David nodded. He was too emotional to talk.

After the staff left the dining room, Lady Constance’s daughter Melanie had her turn to wish David well. And, then the Major-General shook his hand and said, “You follow orders, son. I’m sure you will be home soon. You take good care. We’ll look after your father.”

David nodded and said, “Thank you, Sir.”

Saying good night to Lady Constance, known as Sally by her close friends, David and Owen left the dining room and walked across the cobblestone yard to their quarters above the empty stable. David instinctively adjusted his pace to his father’s slower walk on crutches. Owen’s left leg was amputated below the knee from a gangrenous wound sustained in the trenches at Passchendaele in Belgium.

Bent on his crutches, Owen looked shorter than his six-foot-two inch frame. At ten David was a foot and a half shorter than his father, but did inherit his father’s straight, light brown hair and piercing blue eyes.

Owen and David had only been separated for brief periods when Owen had to be away with the Major-General. They were as close as father and son could be. The two had spent many hours together building models of airplanes and studying all kinds of aircraft. David was quite an expert on identifying airplanes built by England, Germany, and the United States. He also excelled at his studies at The Clarence Harrow Day School, just two blocks away.

“Once you know where you will be, send me a letter so I can send you whatever you will need. I’m sure I don’t have to say this, son, but be kind to the people who will take you in. Do as you are asked and try to be no trouble to them.”

“Da, must I really go?”

“Son, if I didn’t think it was necessary, believe me, I would never send you away. Hopefully this will be a short war and you will be home soon. I have to know that you are in a safe place. As unhappy as I am, it’s the right thing to do.”

Owen insisted that David take a bath, have a good scrub and wash his hair. “It might be a while before you have an opportunity to take a bath, and then to bed. I’ll wake you in the morning.”

David hugged his father for a long time. He was always careful not to let his father lose his balance.

 

Across London near Chancery Lane in the City, Claudette Bouvier was also preparing for her parting from her parents and her baby brother, Alexandre. It was a real hardship on her parents to be separated from their daughter, not only because they loved her, but they depended on her. Julianne and Jacques Bouvier emigrated in l929, from Lille, France, a city that was ravaged in the Great War. They spoke enough English to run a bakery, but they relied on Claudette to help them interpret important papers and letters, as well as take care of her brother while her parents worked in the shop below their flat. Perhaps for a ten-year-old, they relied on her too much.

Julianne and Jacques prepared a special dinner for Claudette’s last night at home, cooking her very favorite escalope de veau with scalloped potatoes and sautéed string beans with almonds. Claudette’s all time favorite of her mother’s baking was an apricot tart topped with fresh cream. As a special treat, she was allowed a half glass of red wine mixed with seltzer water.

After dinner, they sat on the sofa in the living room. Julianne brought out the precious family photo album. Even though some of the earlier pictures were beginning to fade, Julianne removed photos of both sets of grandparents and gave them to Claudette to remind her of her family. Included was a photo of Julianne, Jacques, Alexandre, and Claudette proudly standing outside the bakery with its sign Le Petit Boulangerie clearly in view above the door. Alexandre had fallen asleep on his father’s lap while Jacques stroked his head gently. Claudette sat between her parents, resting her head on her mother’s shoulder. As much as she wanted to stay awake a bit longer, her eyes were so heavy she fell asleep. Jacques gently touched Claudette’s shoulder to indicate she should get ready to go to bed. “Mamam and I will come in in a few minutes to say good night.”

Julianne held her daughter until Claudette fell asleep. Her parents sat on the edge of her bed for a long while just staring at her. This was going to be a very emotional parting and they knew it.

 

Cecil Binghamton had spent his last night with his nanny, Mademoiselle Chollet, in the nursery in Hampstead, and not with his parents in the formal dining room. A tray had been sent up for his dinner. Under a silver canopy the cook had prepared breaded cod and chips, a meal his mother would not have approved. However, Cook had a special feeling for the boy and wanted him to enjoy what she knew he liked.

Cecil loved his nanny, who had been with him since he was born. He rarely saw his mother and father, but when he did, it was just for a few minutes. They always seemed annoyed with him, which he was very sensitive to. He couldn’t think of anything that he did that would cause this kind of feeling, but in the end he always felt he was a burden to them.

Mademoiselle Chollet spoke only French to Cecil from the very beginning so he was fluent in the language. When he was home from school in Winchester she was the first person he saw in the morning and the last at night. All of his meals were with her. She accompanied him on all his outside activities. She was more of a mother to him than his mother. Parting from his parents was not as difficult as it would be with his nanny.

“It will not be same, Master Cecil, when you leave. I will miss you terribly. I don’t think your mother or father would appreciate you writing directly to me, so perhaps you can just put a little note in their letters for me.”

“I don’t care if they don’t approve of my writing to you, Mademoiselle. I’ll do as I please. I’m sure you can find out where I’ll be staying. Mother always puts her letters on the table in the entrance hall for Gilbert to post. You could copy my address and then you’ll be able to write to me. It would mean a lot to me to get a letter from you,” he said tearfully.

She handed him a packet wrapped in blue tissue paper. “A present for you,” she said smiling.

He ripped the paper off. In the velvet covered box was a fountain pen. And separately, she handed him a bottle of black ink. “I hope you can squeeze this into your valise.”

“Thank you. It’s a very special gift,” he said as he hugged her.

After a hot, soapy bath, Cecil got into his pajamas. Mademoiselle Chollet tucked him in, and after a kiss good night by the one person he knew loved him, he went to sleep.

Lady Caroline and Sir Cecil finished dining. When they came to Cecil’s bedroom, it was after ten o’clock. He was already asleep.

 

David was awakened by his father at seven o’clock. His suitcase had been packed the night before. When he came out of the bathroom, Owen was checking to make sure the gas mask was operational. The thing was really an ugly contraption and when placed over the face, the strong smell of rubber was sickening.

“Do I really need to take that with me, Da?”

“Unfortunately, son, this is an essential piece of equipment. Hopefully you will never have to use it, but it is mandatory that you carry it. And I mean at all times. Understood?”

With his hands on his hips he asked his father, “Why is it mandatory?”

“I’m sure your teacher explained its purpose when you had school drills. It’s only a precaution in the event that chemicals are used by the enemy. So am I clear on this point?”

“Yes, sir,” he answered as he looked down as if kicking an invisible football.

Rather than David having his breakfast downstairs with the staff, as he did most mornings, Owen prepared a bowl of Weetabix, with hot milk and a small piece of butter in the center, in their quarters. Two pieces of brown bread were toasted in the oven and spread with Mrs. Dancer’s homemade strawberry jam to accompany a cup of hot tea with milk sweetened with two spoons of sugar, just like David liked it.

David was dressed in his pressed white shirt and school tie, a navy wool jacket and short pants with his Sunday best shoes, polished by his father and gray knee socks. His blue school cap was in his hand.

As David left the only home he had ever known, he took one last long look behind him. Then he descended the stairs carrying his suitcase, and walked across the cobblestone yard into the big house where Sally had returned that morning from her home so that she could again say goodbye to David. Owen was right behind him.

David was very fond of Sally. Owen and Sally had met when David was only a few months old. She had always been very kind to him and very considerate to make sure someone was overseeing him when his father had to be away overnight, as he sometimes was on errands for her father.

David put his suitcase down and grabbed Sally around her waist. She rubbed the top of his head and kissed his forehead and then both cheeks. She wanted to say something but she just couldn’t talk over the lump in her throat. Instead David said, “I’ll write you a letter so you know where I am.”

Sally nodded and then was able to say, “Don’t worry about your Da. I’ll make sure he’s taken care of. You just take care of yourself. Who knows? Maybe this thing will end quickly and you’ll be home before you know it.” She said this as tears trickled down her cheeks.

Nodding, David said, “I hope so too.” With one last hug, he walked out the front door, and went down the steps.

Mr. Hodkins had already carried David’s suitcase and overcoat down the front steps and waited for David and Owen, who followed immediately. Again Mr. Hodkins shook David’s hand and just said, “Come ’ome soon, lad.”

“I will.”

The Clarence Harrow Day School was only two streets away. It was not a difficult walk for Owen and one that he took whenever he could to spend some time with David. Owen looped David’s overcoat through his arm and crutch as it was too warm on this September morning to wear a coat. But winter wasn’t that far off and certainly David would need it soon.

There was an eerie silence that morning as they walked past ivy-clad stone walls sealing off any access to view the gardens behind them. No one else was on the street except the street cleaner sweeping the leaves with his twig broom. As they approached the schoolyard at eight-fifty-five, they could see most of the other children had already arrived.

The instructions were clear. Parents were not to linger in the schoolyard. Say your goodbye and leave. All that had to be said was said the night before. The two just hugged and Owen walked away. Probably it was the longest walk of his life back to the big house.

 

Cecil also rose at seven o’clock. His breakfast was brought up to the nursery by Mrs. O’Leary, the head housekeeper.

“Here you are, Master Cecil. Cook wanted you to have a nice solid breakfast.” On the tray was a plate of two fried eggs, three pieces of bacon instead of the two he normally had, half of a fried tomato and fried beans, two pieces of white toast, and bowl of freshly made marmalade. A large glass of milk with Hershey’s chocolate syrup was also on the tray. Cook knew that if Lady Caroline found out that both his dinner the night before and his breakfast this morning was not to her specifications, there would be disciplinary actions taken. Cook was willing to take the chance. She liked the boy and always felt sorry for him that he wasn’t getting his fair share of his mother’s love.

Mademoiselle Chollet was always a little frightened of Lady Caroline, so she and Cecil said their goodbyes in the nursery. He looked at her with concern on his face. “What will happen to you now that I will be going away?”

“There will be no need for me here now, my petit garçon. Maybe I will find another young boy who will need me. You mustn’t worry about me. All I care about now is that you will be safe somewhere in the country. But know, my dear boy, you will always have a special place in my heart.”

Cecil wrapped his arms around his nanny’s waist. As she hugged him, she kissed the top of his head. With her hands on his shoulder, she pushed him away and then took his face in her hands and kissed both of his cheeks and then his forehead. “Go now, your mother will be waiting.” She wiped his eyes with her handkerchief.

Cecil picked up his valise, stood for a moment looking at her, turned and left the nursery.

He carried his valise down from the third floor and left it by the front door.

When he came into the morning room, his mother was standing by the mantle. She seemed awkward. “Do you have everything you need?”

“Yes, Mother.”

“Tuck in your shirt. Please take more care of your appearance, Cecil. You always look so ragged.”

Cecil sighed as he lifted his vest and put the shirt tail into his trousers.

“The car is out front, so I guess we should leave.”

“Shouldn’t I say goodbye to Father?”

“Your father has already left for his chambers.” Sir Cecil was a barrister at the QEB at Temple.

“Oh,” was all Cecil could manage, trying not to show how hurt he was that his father did not take the time to say goodbye to him.

“We must go. You don’t want to be late.”

Gilbert, the butler, stood holding the front door open. “Keep well, Master Cecil. Good morning Madam.”

The chauffeur was standing by the opened car door. Lady Caroline entered first. Cecil climbed in. His valise was put into the boot. The drive from Hampstead took twenty minutes in the morning traffic to St. Andrew’s Day School.

The long car pulled up in front of the schoolyard. Lady Caroline bent to kiss her son on the cheek. All she said to him was “mind your manners.” Cecil exited the car while the chauffeur removed his valise from the boot. Just for a moment Cecil looked back at his mother as if to say something, but nothing came from his lips. The car pulled away as he stood watching it.

 

Claudette was awake long before she had to get up, but she lay there with the covers bunched in her hands under her chin. When she heard the clatter of plates in the kitchen, she knew her mother was preparing her breakfast. For a brief moment she hated her mother and father for not allowing her to stay at home. Why were they letting her go away? Why couldn’t she stay at home and face whatever was to come? Certainly her parents could be in danger too.

Claudette came into the kitchen and momentarily stood staring at her mother. Julianne’s eyes stayed glued to the pot of oatmeal she was stirring with a wooden spoon. Claudette knew that her mother had been up for several hours already baking bread in the shop below. A fresh baguette was on the table, along with a plate of butter and gooseberry jam.

“Good morning, Mamam.”

Julianne stopped stirring and covered her eyes with her hand. In French she spoke softly to her daughter. “Claudette, please don’t make this any harder than it is. Your father and I discussed this for a long time. We left Lille because we already lived through one war. We came to England because we thought it would be a safe place to raise our children. The memory of that war is still very clear in my mind. I remember how frightened I was as a child.” She hesitated for a moment. “We don’t know what will happen here, but I don’t want you to live through what your father and I had to. I beg you to understand that we feel we are doing the right thing.”

“But, Mamam, do you know how much I will worry about you? What will you do if war comes here? How will you manage?” Claudette slowly walked toward her mother. When Julianne turned to look at her daughter, Claudette could see how red her mother’s eyes were from crying. Julianne put her hand up to her daughter’s forehead and pushed back a lock of hair.

“My beautiful daughter, you will make our minds calmer knowing you are away from this big city. Please sit down and have your breakfast. When you are finished you must dress. Papa will take you to school.”

Claudette’s stomach was so tight it was hard to get the food down. She ate, more to please her mother than herself. She wiped her mouth with her napkin, got up and said to her mother “Thank you, Mamam. I guess I should get dressed.” Then she walked out of the kitchen and down the hallway to her bedroom.

As Claudette was dressing her mother came into her room. Julianne motioned for Claudette to sit on the bed so that she could comb her long blonde hair. With her back to her mother, Claudette’s eyes were closed. She loved when her mother combed her hair and she savored the moment.

With a knock on the door, Jacques whispered, “We must leave in five minutes.” Claudette turned to her mother and the two hugged.

Jacques walked with Claudette, holding her hand while carrying her knapsack with the other. Once they reached St. Elizabeth’s Catholic School, Jacques helped Claudette put the knapsack on her shoulders. He knelt down and took her face into his hands, “My dearest daughter, you will be okay, I promise. We will think of you always and you will think of us. I don’t think it will be too long until we will be together again. Your mother and I love you very much.” He pulled her to him and then let go. She watched him walk away.

 

By ten o’clock that morning King’s Cross station was already swarming with thousands of children. The teachers and volunteers were struggling to keep the children in line according to their schools, but to no avail.

Trains from the north pulled into the station loaded with conscripted soldiers in uniforms. Carrying duffle bags over their shoulders, a rifle slung over their other shoulder, they were disembarking from the trains disrupting the lines of the schools. The men coming from the trains were walking through the groups in the station. Some of these men looked like boys themselves, hardly old enough to fight a war, yet looked young enough to be part of the evacuees.

Simultaneously, from a separate entrance into the station, hospital patients in wheelchairs, pushed by nurses, and stretchers, carried by orderlies, were brought into the station for evacuation. People coming and going were crashing into each other. The long lines of children waiting in front of the ladies and gents toilets added to the confusion of the teachers trying to keep the schools together. Within a very short time there was total mayhem.

Volunteers talked through megaphones. “Please stay with your school. Stay together. Do not leave your school group.” With all of the noise from the children talking, laughing, crying, and from the belching of the engines of the locomotives, and a public address system making announcements, no one could hear anything. Whatever instructions were being announced, no one could understand a word. It was obvious to the teachers and volunteers that this was just a logistical nightmare.

The teachers and the volunteers tried to make some order by grabbing children’s shoulders and trying to get them into a line of three children across. Now it seemed to make no difference what school they belonged to as the only goal was to get them on the trains. One teacher shouted at a group of students who just stood still not knowing which direction to walk in. “You there! Get in line and stay there!”

David, Cecil and Claudette, were now standing next to each other, each with a string around their necks holding a manila tag with their names printed on them.

David and Claudette had never been on a train. Cecil was quite used to them as he was often accompanied by his nanny to his school in Winchester when his mother’s chauffeured car was not available to drive him. It was only because Cecil was recovering from an appendectomy that he was in London in August into September. It was through his mother’s last minute intervention that he was registered with one of the local schools only for the purpose of the evacuation.

David’s chin was resting on his chest. He tried so hard to hold back his tears. Cecil looked over to him and said, “Don’t worry. It will be fun to take a train ride.”

“I’ve never been on a train,” David said.

“I take the train all the time to my school in Winchester. It’s not so bad. You’ll see.”

Ten platforms of trains were now ready to board the children. As each child stepped up into the compartment, volunteers handed out sandwiches cut into triangles spread with ham paste and relish. They were told to save them for the journey, but some of the children ate theirs right away.

Each compartment had six seats, three on each side. But because there were so many children twelve were put into each compartment, squeezing six on each side. David, Cecil, and Claudette were now at the front of the line. Each stepped into the compartment and sat on the same side. Claudette sat in between the two boys. Her knapsack was on her lap. Cecil jumped up to offer her a hand, putting her knapsack up into the luggage rack, where his valise was. David’s suitcase was on the floor. “We’ll have more leg room if you put your case up,” Cecil said to David. “Here, let me do it for you.”

David watched as Cecil put his suitcase up on the rack admiring the experience of this seasoned traveler.

“Hello. I’m Cecil Binghamton.”

“Hello. I’m David Blamley.”

Claudette chimed in. “And I’m Claudette Bouvier. Thanks for putting my knapsack up.”

The door to the compartment closed.

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