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Authors: Michelle Magorian

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BOOK: Goodnight Mister Tom
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Although most wireless owners had opened their doors so that people could listen to the King’s message, Mr Peters talked about it for those who had missed it. He mentioned the regulations regarding the blackout and the carrying of gas-masks, and Mr Thatcher, the tall ginger-haired father of the twin girls and their dark-haired sister, spoke about the procedure of action during an air raid.

Gumboots and oilskins were given out and ordered for volunteers.

It was decided that the First Aid Post would be at Doctor and Nancy Little’s cottage and that the village hall was to be the Rest Centre.

Mrs Miller threw her puffy arm into the air and volunteered to run a canteen for any troops that might pass through. This suggestion was greeted with howls of laughter at the idea of anyone bothering to take a route that included Little Weirwold. However, Lilian Peters, seeing how hurt Mrs Miller was, said that she thought that it was a good idea and after suggesting that a weekly gathering of the evacuated mothers and their infants would also be an excellent idea, Mrs Miller sat down beaming, because she believed she had thought of it herself.

Mr Bush announced that Mrs Black had agreed to help at the school as there would be an extra seventy children attending. She was a quietly-spoken old lady who had been retired for seven years.

‘Goin’ to have her hands full with some of that town lot,’ Tom remarked to himself.

Several people volunteered for being special constables but Tom remained silent. His life had been well-ordered and reasonably happy, he thought, by minding his own business. The last thing he wanted was to turn himself into a do-gooder, but he realized very quickly that most of the volunteers were genuinely and sincerely opening their hearts and homes.

Mr Thatcher stood up to talk about fire-watching duties.

‘No one is allowed to do more than forty-eight hours a month,’ he said. ‘Just a couple of hours a day.’

Tom raised his arm.

Mr Peters looked towards the back of the hall in surprise. ‘Yes, Tom?’ he asked. ‘Did you wish to say something?’

‘I’m volunteering, like,’ he said.

‘I beg yer pardon,’ said Mr Thatcher in amazement.

‘I’ll do the two hours a day. Early in the mornin’ like, or tea-time. Can’t leave the boy alone at night.’

‘No, no, of course not,’ and his name was hurriedly put down.

There was a murmur of surprise and enthusiasm in the hall. A tall, angular figure stood up. It was Emilia Thorne.

‘Put mine there too,’ she said, ‘and while I’m about it, anyone who would like to join our Amateur Dramatics Group is very welcome. Meetings now on Thursdays, which means you can still attend practices at the First Aid Post on Wednesdays.’

Soon a dozen or so hands were raised and after their names had been written down and details of what their duties would involve the meeting was brought to a close.

It was dark when Tom stepped out of the hall. He strode away towards the arched lane while the sound of chatter and laughter behind him gradually faded. He recollected, in his mild stupor, that Mrs Fletcher and Emilia Thorne had spoken to him and that the Doctor had asked after William and had said something about their boy being over at his place.

It was pitch black under the overhanging branches and it wasn’t until he reached the gate of Dobbs’ field that he was able, at last, to distinguish the shapes of the trees, and Dobbs and the wall by the churchyard. He swung open the gate and shut it firmly behind him. ‘Bet Rachel’s ’avin’ a good laugh,’ he muttered wryly to himself for not only had he volunteered for fire-watching duties, but he had also volunteered the services of Dobbs and the cart since there was news of petrol rationing. He strolled over to the nag and slapped her gently.

‘I’ll has to get you a gas-mask, and all, eh ole girl. Seems we’re both up to our necks in it now.’

The stars were scattered in fragments across the sky. Tom stared up at them. It didn’t seem possible that there was a war. The night was so still and peaceful. He suddenly remembered Willie.

‘Hope he’s had the sense to go inside,’ he mumbled and he headed in the direction of home. He opened the little back gate and peered around in the dark for the shelter. He would have bumped into it if he hadn’t heard voices.

‘William! William! Where is you?’

‘’Ere, Mister Tom,’ said a voice by his side.

Tom squinted down at him. ‘Ent you got sense enuff to go indoors. Yous’ll catch cold in that wet jersey.’

A loud scrabbling came from inside the Anderson and Sam leapt out of the entrance and tugged excitedly at his trousers. Tom picked him up, secretly delighted that he hadn’t been deserted in affection. Sam licked his face, panting and barking.

‘It was my idea,’ said a cultured voice. ‘To keep at it.’

‘Who’s that?’ asked Tom sharply.

‘Me, Mr Oakley,’ and he felt a hand touch his shirt-sleeve.

Tom screwed up his eyes to look at Zach. He could make out what looked like a girl in the darkness.

‘I just thought it was a shame to go inside on such a night as this,’ he continued, ‘so I persuaded Will to partake of my company for a while.’

‘Who’s Will?’ asked Tom, bluntly.

‘My name for William. He told me he was called Willie, but I though that was a jolly awful thing to do to anyone. Willie just cries out for ridicule, don’t you think? I mean,’ he went on, ‘it’s almost as bad as Zacharias Wrench.’

‘What?’ said Tom.

‘Zacharias Wrench. That’s me. Zach for short.’

‘Oh.’

Willie stared at their silent silhouettes in the darkness, for what seemed an eternity. He could hear only the sound of Sam’s tongue lathering Tom’s face and a gentle breeze gliding through the trees.

‘Best come in,’ said Tom at last.

They clattered into the hallway. Tom put the blacks up in the front room, crashed around in the darkness and lit the gas and oil lamps. After he had made a pot of tea they sat near the range and surveyed each other.

Willie’s face, hair and clothes were covered in earth. His filthy hands showed up starkly against the white mug he was holding. Zach, Tom discovered, was a voluble, curly-haired boy a few months older than Willie, only taller and in bad need, so he thought, of a haircut. A red jersey was draped around his bare shoulders and a pair of frayed, rather colourful, men’s braces held up some well-darned green shorts. Apart from his sandals, his legs were bare.

‘You finished the shelter then?’ said Tom.

Willie nodded and glanced in Zach’s direction. ‘He helped.’

‘By the feel of it, you done a good job. How’d you reach the top?’

There was a pause.

‘Wiv the ladder,’ said Willie huskily.

‘Yes,’ interspersed Zach, ‘that was my idea.’

‘Oh, was it now?’

‘Yes.’

‘You put it back then?’

‘Oh yes. It might be a bit earth-stained, though.’

Tom poked some tobacco in his pipe and relit it.

‘Where you stayin then? You ent from round here.’

‘With Doctor and Mrs Little. I’ve been here for about a week now.’

‘Oh,’ said Tom. ‘I haven’t seen you around.’

‘I haven’t seen you around either,’ said Zach.

Willie choked on a mouthful of tea and Zach slapped his back. He flinched. His skin was still bruised and sore.

‘I say,’ blurted out Zach with concern. ‘You’re not one of those delicate mortals, are you?’

‘No, he ent,’ said Tom sharply. ‘Least ways, not for long.’

Zach glanced at the clock on the bookcase and stood up. ‘I say,’ he exclaimed, ‘it’s nine o’clock. Thanks awfully for the tea, Mr Oakley. May I come round tomorrow and see Will?’

‘Up to William, ask him.’

Willie was so exhausted from the day’s labours that he didn’t know whether he had dreamt the last remark or not.

‘Can I?’ said Zach earnestly. ‘I’ve a marvellous idea for a game.’

‘Yeh.’

‘Wizard! Caloo Callay!’

With a great effort he attempted to pull his jersey on over his head. He tugged and pulled at it until it eventually moved over his nose and ears, causing his hair to spring up in all directions like soft wire.

‘Phew!’ he gasped, ‘I did it. Mother says I mustn’t grow any more till she’s collected enough wool to knit me a bigger one.’ He tugged the sleeves of the jersey down but they slid stubbornly back to between his wrists and elbows.

‘Goodnight, Sam,’ he said, giving him a pat.

‘William,’ said Tom, ‘see yer friend out.’

Willie stood sleepily to his feet and followed Zach into the hall, closing the door behind them.

‘Ow!’ cried Zach as his knee hit the step ladder. Willie opened the front door. The sky was still starry and a cool breeze shook the grass between the gravestones. He shivered.

‘Your jersey’s awfully damp,’ said Zach feeling it. ‘Don’t go catching pneumonia.’ He glanced cautiously round the graveyard. ‘Just looking for spies,’ he explained. ‘Look, about my idea. You know Captain McBlaid?’

‘D’you mean Charlie Ruddles?’

‘No,’ said Zach excitedly, ‘Captain McBlaid of the Air Police.’

‘Is he the prime minister or somethin’?’

‘No!’ He took another look around. ‘I’ll tell you more about it tomorrow. Roger, Wilco and out.’

Willie watched him walk down the path and towards the church. He pulled himself up over the wall and disappeared. Who was Roger Wilco and what did he mean by out, he thought. He stepped back into the hall and felt his way back to the living room.

In front of the range stood the large copper tub. Tom was pouring hot water into it while Sam was hiding under the table and eyeing it suspiciously.

‘Don’t worry, Sam. It ent fer you.’

He looked down at Willie. ‘You’ll be stiff tomorrer. Best have a good soak.’

Willie stared in horror at the bubbling water and backed towards the table. He watched Tom lift two more saucepans from the range and empty them together with a handful of salt into the tub.

‘Come on then,’ he said.

‘Is it fer me clothes, Mister Tom?’

‘It’s fer you.’

Willie swallowed. ‘Please, mister. I can’t swim. I’ll drown.’

‘Ent you never…’ but he stopped himself. It was a stupid question. ‘You don’t put yer head under. You sit in it, washes yerself and has a little lean back.’

It took some time before Willie allowed himself to relax in the water. Tom handed him a large square bar of soap and showed him how to use it. He then proceeded to wash Willie’s hair several times with such vigour that Willie thought his head would fall off. A drop of soap trickled into his eyes and he rubbed it only to find that he had created more pain.

After this ordeal Tom left him to have a soak and slowly Willie began to unwind. He held onto the sides of the tub and let his legs float gently to the surface. The gas lamp flickered and spluttered above him, sending moving shadows across the walls.

He gave a start for he had been so relaxed that he had nearly fallen asleep. Tom handed him a towel and after he had dried himself and had his hair rubbed and combed and had put his pyjamas on, he sat down on the pouffe by the armchair while Tom sat ready to tell him a story. Sam spread himself out on the rug between them.

‘I’m goin’ to look at the story first and then tells it in me own way, like what I done with Noah. That suit you?’

Willie nodded and hugged his knees.

‘This is the story of how God created the world,’ and he began to talk about the light and the darkness, the coming of the sky and the sea, the fish and the animals and of Adam and Eve.

After this he made them both some cocoa and began the first of the
Just So
stories.

‘I haven’t read these for years,’ he said, leaning over to Willie. ‘Come and look at these pictures.’

Willie rested against the arm of the armchair and listened to ‘How the Whale got his Throat’. This was a slow process, for Tom had to keep stopping to explain what the words meant, and several times had to look them up in a dictionary.

Willie lay in bed that night, tired and aching, but the aches were very pleasant ones and as he slept he dreamt that Adam and Eve were being chased by a large whale and that he stood in the garden of Eden wondering if God was nubbly and ate infinite sauce and sagacity.

7
An Encounter over Blackberries

They slung the rubber sheet and pyjamas over the washing line and peered into the shelter.

‘Water,’ murmured Tom, ‘I might have known. We’ll have to keep a stirrup pump close by.’ He patted the side of the strange earthy mound. ‘I’ll put some more earth on today and then we can plant a few turnips and such in it. Ever growed anything afore?’ he said, turning to Willie.

He shook his head.

‘Always a first time. Come with me. I’ll show you somethin’.’

Willie followed him out of the back gate and across the tiny road, Sam scampering after them. Instead of turning left towards the village they carried on to the right. They hadn’t walked very far when they came to a tiny dirt track off the road.

The aching that Willie had first felt on waking was beginning to ease up, apart from his ankles, which were still a little sore from his boots. A sudden burst of energy rose up inside him. It excited and frightened him. He had always been good at keeping still. It was wicked not to, he knew that, but now he felt a desperate desire to leap and jump. He pressed his lips together and, clenching his fists and frowning, he tried to numb the strange new feelings away.

Tom caught sight of the flush of excitement burning in his cheeks.

‘Race Sammy to the gate,’ he said, pointing to one a hundred yards ahead of them. ‘I’ll hold him to give you a head start.’

‘Run, d’you mean?’

‘Well, I don’t mean fly. Now when I ses go, you jest go.’

He whistled for Sam and held him squirming and wriggling in his arms.

‘You got rabbit and bone fever, ent you, my boy?’ he said, as he struggled to hold him.

Willie fixed his eyes on to the gate and held his breath.

‘Right,’ said Tom. ‘On yer marks, get set, go!!’

Willie shot forth, half running, half stumbling. He clenched his fists even tighter. Bang! He fell with a hard thud on to his knees. Pushing himself up, he staggered on, feeling angry and desperate inside. In his heart he wanted to run properly but his stupid legs were letting him down. He heard Sam barking behind him.

BOOK: Goodnight Mister Tom
11.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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