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Authors: Michelle Magorian

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BOOK: Goodnight Mister Tom
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‘Ulloo,’ she said.

Willie shuffled in his boots and dug a toe into the grass.

‘Hello,’ he said in return.

An awkward silence came between them and he was more than grateful when Mister Tom called out to him.

‘Go and put the kettle on,’ he yelled. ‘I got to see the vicar.’

Willie turned quickly and stumbled hurriedly down the path leaving Lucy to stare silently after him until he had disappeared into the cottage.

The lid of the kettle rattled continuously, causing the living room to be enveloped in clouds of dense steam. Willie had tried vainly to lift the kettle from off the range and, having only succeeded in burning his hand, he waited anxiously for Mister Tom’s return. Tom didn’t bat an eyelid at the warm fog. He strode into the room and picking up the kettle with an old cloth he proceeded to make a pot of tea. It wasn’t till he had put three mugs on the table that Willie realized that there was a third person in the room. A short, stocky middle-aged man with thinning brown hair, a ruddy face and a twinkle in his eyes was standing at the doorway eyeing him. He blushed.

‘Come on in, Mr Fletcher,’ said Tom brusquely. He and Mr Fletcher sat at the table and Willie took one of the mugs and perched himself on the stool in front of the range. He felt very self-conscious and stayed gazing at the fire while the two men talked about widths of trenches. He pricked up his ears at one point for he knew that they were talking about him.

‘Oh yes, he’ll manage all right,’ he heard Tom say. ‘Have to muck in like the rest of us.’ He glanced in his direction. ‘William,’ he said, ‘yous’ll have to get yer hands dirty today. You don’t mind a bit of muck and earth, I don’t s’pose?’

‘No, Mister Tom,’ said Willie.

This was a different world altogether. For a start his mother had always taught him that it was a sin to work or play on the Sabbath. Sundays were for sitting silently with a bible in front of you. And, for another thing, if he got any dirt on his clothes he’d get a beating. His classmates had called him a sissie because he had never dared to dirty himself by climbing a wall or joining in any of their rough-and-tumble games. And, in addition to having to keep his clothes clean, his body was often too bruised and painful to play apart from the fact that he didn’t know how to.

‘Mister Tom?’ he asked after Mr Fletcher had left. ‘Wot about me clothes gettin’ dirty?’

‘You can take yer shirt off. ’Tis a good hot day.’

Willie shuffled nervously on the stool. ‘What’s up now?’ he said curtly. ‘Them bruises is it?’ He nodded. ‘Wear yer grey jersey then. Mind,’ he added, ‘you’ll be drippin’. And put yer old socks on.’

After a meal of meat and potato stew of which Willie only managed a few mouthfuls, Mr Fletcher returned accompanied by his two teenage sons. They were carrying spades and measuring sticks.

Tom pointed sadly to a patch of grass in the back garden. ‘Best start there,’ he said. ‘’Tis a reasonable distance from the latrine.’

They cut and stripped the turf away in small neat squares and then after measuring the ground they slowly and laboriously began to dig. Willie was given a small spade and after an hour of removing a tiny section of earth he began to forget that he was surrounded by strangers and gradually became absorbed in his digging. Mister Tom had told him not to be afraid of the earth, but it was still wet from the previous night’s rain and occasionally he let out an involuntary squeal when his spade contacted a worm. This made the others laugh and yell ‘townee’, but they carried on digging and Willie realized that there was no malice in their laughter.

In the middle of digging they all sat down for a mug of tea. Willie helped hand the mugs around. The two youths, he had learned, were called Michael and Edward. Michael was the elder. He was dark-haired with a few strands of hair on his upper lip. Edward, the younger, was stockier. He had brown wavy hair and a hoarse voice that was in the process of breaking.

Willie sat at the edge of the shallow trench and clung tightly to his mug. The inside of his hands smarted under the heat of it. Suddenly he gave a start. Footsteps and the sound of a boy’s voice were approaching the hedge. Maybe it was the Post Office boy. He turned sharply to look. Two boys leaned over the small gate. They were Michael and Edward’s younger brothers. One of them was the brown-haired choirboy and his younger brother was a smaller dark-haired version of him. Tom gave his usual frown at the appearance of uninvited intrusion.

‘May I has yer worms, Mr Oakley?’ inquired the choirboy.

Tom grunted and the smallest fled immediately. ‘Dare say you can, George. Come on in.’

‘Thanks, Mr Oakley,’ he said enthusiastically and he swung the gate open.

In his hands was a large tin. He walked over to the trench and began scrutinizing the piles of earth. Willie watched him in horror as he picked up the wriggling worms and put them inside the tin. Within minutes he was helping with the digging. He turned shortly to discover Willie staring at him. ‘You’se one of them townees, ent you?’ he said. Willie nodded. ‘Ent you hot in that jersey?’

He had stripped off his shirt as soon as he had joined in. Willie shook his head, but the tell-tale beads of sweat that ran down his flushed face belied him. His jersey clung to his chest in large damp patches.

‘You looks hot, why don’t you peel off?’

Willie grew more reticent and mumbled out something that George couldn’t hear.

‘What?’ he said. ‘What did you say?’

‘Boy’s got a temperature,’ interrupted Tom curtly. ‘Best to sweat it off.’

Willie didn’t look at George any more after that, but carried on digging with extra fervour. Later in the afternoon, Mrs Fletcher appeared with lemonade and cakes for everyone, and George left, soon after, with a bulging tin of worms.

Sammy watched them digging from a corner of the garden. He was miserable at being left out. He had tried to help earlier but was only yelled at angrily for filling the hole with earth.

When the trench was completed Willie sat on the grass to watch the others fix the Anderson shelter inside it. Sammy lay by his feet. The six steel sheets were inserted into the two widest sides of the trench and bolted together at the top, forming a curved tunnel. Michael and Edward placed one of the flat pieces of steel at one end and Tom and Mr Fletcher fixed it into place. This was the back of the shelter. It had an emergency exit which they all had a go at unbolting.

Willie was so absorbed that he didn’t notice that his knees were being licked and unconsciously he rested his hand on the back of Sammy’s neck.

Tom and Mr Fletcher fixed the next flat piece onto the front of the shelter. Cut inside it was a hole which was at ground level. This acted as a doorway.

‘William,’ said Tom turning, and being surprised to see him sitting with Sammy in a fairly relaxed manner, ‘like to have a try out of this doorway?’

Willie rose and wandered over towards the entrance. He put his head cautiously through the hole and stepped gingerly inside. It was dark and smelt of damp earth. Tom joined him. The shelter curved well above his head so that they could both stand quite comfortably inside. Tom crawled back out into the sun and pulled Willie out after him. He thanked Mr Fletcher and his sons for their help and shook their hands.

‘Pleasure,’ said Mr Fletcher. ‘We must all help one another now.’

‘William,’ said Tom after the Fletchers had left. ‘I’m afraid we ent quite finished yet. We jest got to cover this with earth. Got any strength left?’

Willie felt exhausted but he was determined to keep going. He nodded.

Between them they started to cover the shelter until it was time for Tom to leave for a meeting in the village hall.

‘Don’t carry on fer long,’ he said as he swung the back gate behind him, but Willie continued to pile the earth on, levelling it down with his hands. It was exciting to see the glinting steel slowly disappear under its damp camouflage. He was so absorbed in his task that he didn’t notice dusk approaching. His hands and fingernails were filthy, his face and legs were covered in muck, his clothes were sodden and he was glorying in the wetness of it all. He was in the middle of smoothing one piece of earth when a shadow fell across his hands. He looked up quickly and there, half silhouetted in the twilight, stood the wiry, curly-haired boy he had seen at the Post Office.

6
Zach

‘Hello!’ he said brightly, grasping Willie’s hand. There was a loud squelching of mud as he shook it.

‘Sorry!’ gasped Willie in embarrassment.

The strange boy grinned and wiped it on the seat of his shorts. ‘You’re William Beech, aren’t you?’ Willie nodded. ‘Pleased to meet you. I’m Zacharias Wrench.’

‘Oh,’ said Willie.

‘Yes, I know. It’s a mouthful, isn’t it. My parents have a cruel sense of humour. I’m called Zach for short.’

The strange boy’s eyes seemed to penetrate so deeply into Willie’s that he felt sure he could read his thoughts. He averted his gaze, and began hurriedly to cover the Anderson again.

‘I say, can I help? I’d like to.’

Willie was quite taken aback at being asked.

‘I’m rather good at it, actually,’ he continued proudly. ‘I’ve given a hand at the creation of several. I wouldn’t mess it up.’

‘Yeh,’ replied Willie quietly, ‘if you want.’

‘Thanks. I say,’ he said as he dumped a handful of earth on the side of the shelter. ‘I’ll show you around. Do you like exploring?’

Willie shrugged his shoulders. ‘I dunno.’

‘Is it your first visit to the country?’ But before Willie could reply the boy was already chattering on. ‘It’s not mine exactly. I’ve had odd holidays with friends and my parents but this is the first time I’ve actually sort of
lived
in the country. I’ve read books that are set in the country and, of course, poems, and I’ve lived in towns
near
the country and gone into the country on Sundays or when there was no school.’ He stopped and there was a moment of silence as they carried on working. ‘You’ve not been here long, have you?’ he asked after a while. Willie shook his head. ‘Else I’m sure I would have seen you around. You’re different.’

Willie raised his head nervously. ‘Am I?’

‘Yes, I sensed that as soon as I saw you. There’s someone who’s a bit of a loner, I thought, an independent sort of a soul like myself, perhaps.’ Willie glanced quickly at him. He felt quite tongue-tied. ‘You’re living with Mr Oakley, aren’t you?’ He nodded. ‘He’s a bit of a recluse, I believe.’

‘Wot?’ said Willie.

‘A recluse. You know, keeps himself to himself.’

‘Oh.’

‘I say,’ said Zach suddenly. ‘We’ll be at school together, won’t we?’

He shrugged his shoulders again. ‘I dunno.’ He felt somewhat bewildered. He couldn’t understand this exuberant friendliness in a boy he’d only had a glimpse of twice. It was all too fast for him to take in.

‘I expect you think I’m a bit forward,’ remarked Zach.

‘Wot?’

‘Forward. You know. But you see my parents work in the theatre and I’m so used to moving from town to town that I can’t afford to waste time. As soon as I see someone I like, I talk to them.’

Willie almost dropped the clod of earth he was holding. No one had ever said that they liked him. He’d always accepted that no one did. Even his Mum said she only liked him when he was quiet and still. For her to like him he had to make himself invisible. He hurriedly put the earth on to the shelter.

‘I say,’ said Zach after a while. ‘I can’t reach the top. Is there a ladder indoors?’ Willie nodded. ‘Where is it?’

‘In the hall. It’s Mister Tom’s.’

‘He won’t mind, will he?’

‘I dunno,’ whispered Willie, a little panic-stricken.

‘I’ll take the blame if there’s any trouble,’ said Zach. ‘I say, maybe we can finish it and put the ladder back before he returns. It’ll be a surprise then, won’t it?’ Willie nodded dumbly. ‘Lead the way, then,’ cried Zach. ‘On, on, on,’ and with that they made their way towards the back door.

Meanwhile, after walking in almost total darkness with no lights to guide him save the fast-darkening sky, Tom reached the village hall. It came as quite a shock to enter the brightly-lit building. He shaded his eyes and blinked for a few seconds until he had adjusted to the change. There were far more people than he had anticipated and the buzz of excited chatter was quite deafening. He tried to slip in unnoticed but it was too late. He had already been spotted by Mrs Miller.

‘Well, Mr Oakley,’ she burbled. ‘This is a surprise!’

He turned to frown her into silence.

She was decked out in her Sunday best. A pink pillar-box hat was perched precariously on her head, and pinned to its side was a large artificial purple flower. It hung half-suspended over her mottled pudgy cheeks. The hat could have been a continuation of her face, Tom thought, the colours were so similar.

He cleared his throat. ‘Vicar called the meeting, so here I am.’

‘Yes, of course,’ said Mrs Miller.

He glanced quickly round the hall. Some of the older boys were already in uniform, their buff-coloured boxes slung over their shoulders. Mr Peters, Charlie Ruddles and Mr Bush were seated in the front with Mr Thatcher and Mr Butcher. He slipped quietly to the back of the hall, catching sight of Nancy and Dr Little and acknowledged their presence with a slight gesture of his hand.

He attempted to stand inconspicuously in a corner but it was useless, for most of the villagers nudged one another and turned to stare in his direction. Tom, as Zach said, kept himself to himself. He didn’t hold with meetings or village functions. Since his wife’s, Rachel’s, death he hadn’t joined in any of the social activities in Little Weirwold. In his grief he had cut himself off from people and when he had recovered he had lost the habit of socializing.

‘Evenin’, Mr Oakley,’ said Mrs Fletcher, who was busy knitting in the back row. ‘Left the boy, has you?’

‘With Sam,’ he added, by way of defence.

He had been surprised at Sam’s willingness to stay, and had even felt a flicker of jealousy when he had flopped contentedly down in the grass beside the boy’s feet.

BOOK: Goodnight Mister Tom
8.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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