The year was 1940. The month, September. Our story begins with a shriek of noise. Then an enormous crash. Then another crash, gradual, but growing louder, accompanied by a cloud of choking dust and soot and ash.
It was the beginning of the Blitz, the Nazi bombing of London. Thousands of children had been evacuated out of London the year before, just as war was breaking out. However, when the expected bombing raids did not occur, many children returned back to their homes.
When Hitler began the Blitzkrieg of London on September 7th, 1940, thousands of children were present. Again, the scramble began to get the children to safety. That was how five children found themselves shipped out of London to a small British community in the country. Their names? Frances Blakely; John Coning; Claire Wilson; Tyler Bangs; and Annie Summers.
And their lives all changed forever that day.
The train station was full of noise, smoke, parents, and children. As passengers boarded trains, workers shouted instructions to each other, and the train let out a last minute warning whistle, Mrs. Bangs took out her handkerchief and worriedly rubbed at her son Tyler’s cheek.
“Now remember to always wash behind your ears, Tyler. Did you pack all your socks?”
“All packed, mum.” Tyler beamed at his mother and gave her a kiss.
Another family approached, this one a mother and her teenaged daughter. “You promise you’ll write to me?” Mrs. Blakely asked, quaveringly, her hand clutching her daughter’s arm.
“Of course I will!” Frances replied cheerfully. “You’ll be sick of hearing from me.” She hugged her mother again.
“Now let go of mummy’s hand, love. It’s going to be fine,” well-dressed Mrs. Summers pleaded to her young daughter, Annie, endeavouring to pull herself free
“You’ll hear from us every day by mail, and daddy will be sure to call you once a week,” Mr. Summers added, pulling his daughter free from his wife only to wrap her in a protective hug.
“I don’t want to go!” Annie sobbed, clinging to her dad.
Another family wove through the crowded station towards the train. The mother and son walked quietly, side by side, until they reached the train car. Then Mrs. Coning turned to her only child. “Chin up, soldier. Think of your dad, and be brave.”
John nodded. “Yes, mum. I love you.”
Beside them, the Wilsons were saying goodbye to their daughter, who was staring at all the people and dancing impatiently from one leg to the other.
“Now, if you don’t like it out there, you write to me and let me know,” Mrs. Wilson said.
“And we’ll bring you right home,” Mr. Wilson added, reaching out to stroke his daughter’s hair.
Claire Wilson pulled away. “I know, I know. Thanks.” She withstood her parents hugs, then waved and disappeared up the steps and into the train.
The conductor called, and there was a last flurry of hugs and goodbyes before the children climbed into their seats. The grown-ups waved goodbye from the platform below. Annie was sobbing, the others we have met were in varying degrees of excitement and anxiety.
From her seat by the window, Claire swiveled to glare at Annie unsympathetically. “Come on, stop your crying! This is an adventure!”
“I want my mum and dad!” Annie moaned.
Frances got to her feet and glanced out the door of the compartment and down the train’s corridor. “Where are the supervisors?”
“They’re in the next car down,” Tyler said, dropping into a seat next to John. “A kid in there threw up.”
John shifted over to make room for Tyler. “We’re fine. We don’t need any help.”
“Did you hear that, love?” Frances asked, turning to Annie. “It’ll all be fine. You mum and dad would want you to be brave.”
“Right. Stiff upper lip, young one,” John said firmly.
Annie was unconvinced. “How do you know it’ll be alright?”
“Come on, stop whining,” Claire sighed. “Aren’t you glad to be on your own? I am!”
“She’s little,” Frances said, feeling somehow defensive for the sobbing child. She turned to Annie again. “What’s your name, dear?”
“I’m Frances. Come here, Annie, and I’ll tell you a story.” Annie settled next to Frances and the older girl began to speak in a low voice.
Tyler turned to John. “What’s your name? I’m Tyler Anthony Bartholomew Bangs.” He delivered his name in one long breath, then stuck his hand out for John to shake.
“I’m John Coning,” John replied, seeming not at all to mind the shortness of his name compared with his companion.
“Pleased,” Tyler said cordially. Then he stuck his feet up onto the back of the bench in front of them. “Well, I think that other girl is right. This is an adventure! I mean, I’ll miss mum and all, but I’ve never been out of London before. Have you?”
“No,” John replied. “My dad hardly had time to take us anywhere; he was almost always off in the service.”
“He in the army?”
“Splendid!” Tyler said, approving. John set his chin higher in the air, assuming a soldierly expression that Tyler thought looked very brave.
Claire leaned over to them. “I’m Claire Wilson and this is my first time on a train.”
“Same here,” Tyler said. “I’m Tyler, and this is John. His father’s in the army.”
“That’s fine,” Claire said. “My dad’s a banker, and my mum is a secretary. I’ve had four governesses since I was born and I’ve never been on my own before.”
“I’ve never had a governess,” Tyler mused. Then he grinned. “I am something of a free-spirit, according to my mum.”
“So you won’t sit still? Won’t be quiet?” Claire asked.
Tyler cocked his head. “It’s possible that’s what she meant.”
Claire shook her head. “I thought so.”
Frances scooted toward them along the bench. “I got Annie to fall asleep. May I join you? I heard you all introducing yourselves, so I know your names.”
“Of course,” John replied.
“Thanks.” Frances sat closer to them all. “So, where do you think we’ll end up?”
“Who knows?” Tyler grinned. “Somewhere in the country.”
“Far from London, I hope,” Claire spoke up.
“I hope so,” Frances agreed.
John turned to her. “Are you eager to be away from your home, too? Claire is.”
“Oh, I miss mum already!” Frances said. “I wish she could come, too. I’m just excited about a new atmosphere. I’m a writer — well — I want to be one. And new places inspire me.”
“That’s a good profession to have right now,” said Tyler. “Years down the road, you may get famous for having written about the war and all.”
The train carried these five children and several hundred others out of London into the countryside. As they rode, the five learned that none of them had been sent out of London the previous year, when so many children left for the country. But now, with the bombing of London begun, they had joined the thousands of children leaving the city.
The door to the car opened and a supervisor leaned in. “Children, we’ve still got quite a while to go. Why don’t you pass the time by starting your first letter home? You can mail them once you are settled.” She passed out sheets of paper and some pencils, then retreated again.
Claire wrote her letter very quickly. Dear mum and dad, Well I’m off to great adventure. Don’t expect to hear from me often. I hope you both are well. Claire.
Frances took her sheet of paper and settled it on top of her notebook. She paused, then began to write. Dear mum, Please don’t worry about me. I know you’re praying for me, and I’m thankful. I love you so much. I’ve already made some new friends…
Dear Mum, John began. Have you heard from dad since I left? I have the picture of the two of you in my satchel. I think that’s very proper for a soldier, don’t you think? To have something that reminds him of home…
Annie, who had woken up when the supervisor appeared, began her own letter, written in wobbly handwriting. Dearest mummy and daddy, I miss you! Please come and get me at once. I don’t want to do this…
Tyler watched the others writing for a moment before her picked up his pencil. Dear Mum, Well, stiff upper lip, as my new friend John would say. I guess it’s a good thing we all know how to be brave. He paused and gulped, then glanced around to make sure no one had noticed. No one had, and he tried to continue his letter. Don’t worry about me…. After another glance at his companions, Tyler buried his face and cried.
To be continued.