World War 2 Stories
My friend Alice Goodwin was poor. When I think of her I see her with a runny nose and a red ribbon in her hair that looked like she slept in it. If she cried her tears made pale streaks down her cheeks. I don’t know why she wasn’t washed.
Maybe Alice’s condition was because she didn’t have a father. When I asked where her father was she said he was in Dunkirk. When I told this to my mother she said that Alice’s father died at Dunkirk, but I mustn’t tell this to Alice. Sometimes if we had extra tea rations my mother gave them to Mrs. Goodwin.
Around 1941, when the U-boats were tightening their noose around Britain, and hundreds of bombers flew over us and destroyed Clydebank, and it seemed a land invasion was imminent, Alice and I were always hungry. It wasn’t starvation. You don’t starve when you have potatoes and split peas and an occassional ham bone to put in the soup. But there was virtually no fruit. It still wasn’t known how to synthesize vitamin C.
If I had some bread and jelly, I shared it with Alice. We called it ‘a piece an’ jeely’. “Mummy, can I hae a piece an’ jeely?” That was our mantra. If the response was favorable, how thick was the jelly being spread? That was the question.
Off by ourselves, Alice would roll her eyes while she ate her fragment of bread and jelly. She knew how to make me laugh. She could make her eyes go back and forth. In her living room, over the mantelpiece, there was a clock in the shape of a cat. The tail was the pendulum. As the clock ticked and the tail swung, the cat’s eyes went back and forth. Maybe that clock was the Goodwin’s last family treasure.
There wasn’t enough coal either. Sometimes Alice and I walked along the railway looking for lumps of coal that had fallen off the tenders. To make a game out of it, we would see who could walk on a rail the longest without falling off. If a railway man chased us we would clamber over a wall into someone’s back yard where the air-raid shelters were. We weren’t allowed to go into them, but these mounds had grass growing on them and we could play ‘king of the castle’ on them.
If Alice fell and got hurt, or scraped a knee going over a wall, she would cry and streak her cheeks, and rub pale spaces around her eyes. Then, when she saw that I was miserable, she would stop crying and make her eyes go back and forth like a clock. She would watch me laughing in a detached, bemused sort of way, as though taking stock of this talent she had - I mean, this talent to make people laugh. Sometimes, when my mother washed her face, or tore an old sheet to put a bandage on her elbow, she would say, “Alice, some day you will be a movie star, or a comic.”
One day when Alice and I were unemployed - not looking for coal along the railway, not looking for a turnip that fell off the farmer’s cart, not sneaking into the stable to sift our fingers in the horse’s grain bin, looking for mollasses flavored pellets (a very serious crime), we started across the foot-bridge below the Joiner’s Corner. We were planning to go to the playground across the river where there were swings and a merry-go-round. In the middle of the bridge there was a swanky woman all dressed in black. She even wore a black hat that had a black veil. We could smell her perfume over the smell of the poor industrial river. She had a bag, and she was taking slices of bread from it, breaking them, and dropping the pieces down to a pair of white swans. We stopped to watch. We couldn’t see over the rail, but clutched the wire grid and pressed our heads against it.
Alice pointed a finger through the mesh. “Tha’ yins no fast enuf,” she said, seeing that one swan was getting most of the bread. The woman heard her and looked down at us. “That’s the cob,” she said, pointing to the slow swan. “His name is Prince. “He’s letting the pen, his lady, get most of the bread. See how he points it out to her before it floats away? Her name is Lyra.”
Alice put a thumnail between her lips and considered this overload of information. “My daddy has a pen,” she said.
“Would you like to feed them?” the lady said. She handed each of us a thick slice of bread.
I started to break my piece, but Alice’s went immediately to her mouth. The woman reached for her. “Oh! Don’t dear! It’s moldy!” She pulled Alice’s wrist and took back the slice. Alice wiped her hand on her chest and looked at the ground. She slid one shoe back and forth. She was trying not to cry.
Just then, by chance, Big Davie, the bobby, came strolling across the bridge. “‘Ere! You canny gie bread tae the burds! There’s people hungry!”
The woman in mourning was now twice interrupted in her morning reverie. She raised her veil and confronted the policeman. “They’re God’s creatures too! Besides, it’s moldy!” She thrust the bag toward him. “Look at it if you want!”
Big Davie was startled at this outburst. He took a step back away from the bag. Now I can imagine that he didn’t like his authority being challenged in front of children, but the woman’s dress, her bearing, her King’s English were too much for him. He touched the brim of his tall helmet and bowed slightly. His dialect changed. “Well now, you know how it is these days Mum.” He regarded us ferociously. “Don’t you wains faw in noo! An’ stope boatherin’ the lady!” He drew himself up and continued his slow, dignified march across the bridge.
Alice pressed her nose through the mesh as I dropped my slice, piece by piece through the wire. “She’s still no’ gettin’ ony.”
The lady emptied her bread bag over the rail and took something from her purse. She knelt beside Alice and wiped her nose with a clean hanky. She brushed hair away from Alice’s eyes.
Even through the veil I could see her clenched lips, her face contorted by an effort not to cry. “Don’t blame the bobby, dears,” she said in her clear Aberdeen accent.
Now I can imagine that Big Davie, the swans, Alice and I were not the cause of her grief. She took Alice’s wrist, turned her palm upwards and pressed something into her hand. Then she curled Alice’s fingers over the object and stood up. “Oh dear!” she said, reaching under the veil to clear her eyes. “Tell Mum to get something nice for you.” She walked away, blindly, holding the rail for support, adjusting her hat.
Alice stood still. Her upturned fist moved but she didn’t open it. She was assessing its contents. “It’s no’ a copper,” she said. It’s big, but it’s no’ a copper.” (not a penny - pennies were about the size of a 50 cent piece).
I put my face close to Alice’s fist. “Wha’ is it then, if it’s no’ a copper?” Here again, Alice could recognize a dramatic moment and knew how to make the most of it. Holding her fist under my nose she slowly uncurled her fingers. Silver. An engraving of King George VI in profile, his hair neatly combed. It was half a crown.
The playground was forgotten. The dangerous plot to raid the stable for ‘horse’s cakes’ was forgotten. Alice slowly curled her fingers back over the coin. She spoke in the King’s English. “We’re going to see Snow White,” she said firmly. “We’re going to buy a box of Licorice Allsorts, and we’re going to the La Scalla to see Snow White.
* * * * *
When she was five, Alice died from sugar diabetes. For several years after her death I privately wondered if eating the box of Licorice Allsorts had caused this to happen.
Maybe it was around 1943 that my parents took my sister and I to a seance. I don’t think they were believers, but neighbors, Johnny and Nettie Sellers, invited them and they accepted the invitation.
The seance took place in a dingie hall. Maybe it had formerly been a church. A little old lady, the medium, sat on the stage knitting a gray balaclava helmet. Most of the ladies were knitting balaclavas for the soldiers. Below the stage, a little balding man sat at a battered organ. When everyone was seated, he played a hymn and people sang. The little lady on the stage stopped knitting and closed her eyes.
She sighed deeply several times and then appeared to be asleep. The hymn was finished. The little lady began speaking in a strange accent. My mother explained to us that this was the guide speaking through her. The guide was a young Onondaga Indian with a name something like ‘Hiawatha’. That wasn’t it, but it was something like that.*
Hiawatha gave messages to various people in the audience - messages from dear departed friends and relatives. My parents didn’t get any messages. My sister and I figeted, slumping off the hard bench. “When are we going home?”
“Alice?” Hiawatha said.
People looked around at each other. No one responded.
“Alice?” Hiawatha repeated.
My mother looked around. Nobody was responding. She timidly raised her hand. “Unsmoked, the boy here, played with Alice.”
Eyes still closed, Hiawatha turned toward my mother’s voice. “Unsmoked? Is that really you?” All eyes turned toward me. I shrank into the pew. “Singing,” Hiawatha said, listening intently. “Alice is singing. Unsmoked, do you know her song?” I shriveled against my father.
“They saw Snow White,” my mother said. “Alice knew all the songs.”
Hiawatha nodded, cocking an ear intently. “Yes, now I recognize it. “Some day my prince will come.” Several rows away a woman burst into helpless tears, her companions consoling her. “Hush Maggie! There there now! Dear me!”
My father was impatient to leave. I think that event soured his friendship with Johnny Sellers. I overheard some of his complaints to my mother. “Daft! Gypsies!” He and Johnny still went to ARP meetings together (Air Raid Patrol), but on Friday evenings they no longer went down to the Joiner’s Corner to have a pint and play darts.
To round out the ironies, after the war Alice’s father came home from a German POW camp, or rather, from a German factory where POW’s were forced to work. He had one leg, and there was a puckered place on the side of his head instead of an ear. He had last seen Alice in 1939. Mrs. Goodwin, reduced to a shadow, told my mother that she always knew Isaac would come home. When we left for America several years later the Goodwins had a baby girl. Saying goodbye in their living room, I saw the cat-clock still ticking over the mantelpiece, its tail swinging, its eyes going back and forth.
*Hayowent’ha - He Who Combs