It was when my older sister Beatrice got her toe blown off that Ma decided to send us to the countryside. Bea had been round her friend Kitty’s house when the air raid siren went off. She had just been to Woolworth’s and bought a new Bing Crosby record. She insisted on going back to get it and that’s when it happened. BOOM! She was blown off her feet and so was her toe.
Ma didn’t want us to go, especially with Dad at war. She said she’d be lonely without me and my four-year-old sister Grace bickering. But Bea’s toe was the last straw, so here I am at Liverpool Lime Street, my hair neater than it’s been in years and goosebumps shivering down my legs. I’m eleven. I should be in long trousers, but Ma says I’ve to wear shorts because of the rationing. Grace is in her Sunday best, her hair combed poker straight. I’m surprised Ma managed to get near her with the “pointy monster,” as Grace calls it.
Ma crouches down to Grace, tears running down her face. “Be a good girl, Gracie and remember I’ll always love you.”
“Want to put Mickey on!” Grace pouts, struggling with her gas mask case.
Ma stuck Mickey Mouse ears on the gas mask so she’d wear it without complaining, but it seems to have worked a bit too well!
“Not now Grace” Ma sobs. She turns to me, “George, I love you. Look after your sister and don’t lose your nice new coats. Make sure you smile and be polite so you get picked by a nice family.”
“I’m going to miss you so much, Ma. I’ll write every week and Grace will draw you a picture.”
I’ve barely finished speaking, when a young woman ushers us on to the train, “I’m Miss Booth, I’ll be looking after you today. Say your goodbyes, we’re setting off in five minutes.”
We’re given a carriage and soon we’re sticking our heads out the window.
“I don’t want to go!” I cry to Ma, “We won’t know anyone!”
Ma pushes a bundle into my hand; a handkerchief wrapped around a finger puppet she’s made, and a picture of our family.
“If you feel homesick, just sniff the hanky and it’ll be like you’re back home. Make sure you never wash it!”
When the train leaves, Grace realises Ma isn’t coming and starts screaming.
“Is she gonna shut up? She’s giving us a headache!” A boy and girl are sitting opposite us, scowling.
Grace stops crying and stares. “Why have they got holes in their jumpers?” she asks.
“Cause we ain’t posh like youse!” the boy sneers.
I ignore him and start fiddling with my bag of marbles.
“Oi, you gonna let us play with your ollies?” the boy asks.
“Yeah, Tommy’s the best on our street!” his little sister chirps.
“I don’t want to get them out on the train, they’ll get lost,” I say, and put them in my coat pocket.
Later, Grace falls asleep on me. I’m dying for the toilet, so I prop her against my coat while I find a lavatory. When I get back, I see Grace pointing at Tommy, her eyes popping out. “He stole your marbles!”
“I never!” Tommy exclaims.
Frantically, I Iook in my coat pocket. No marbles. “Give them back!” I hiss.
Suddenly, the door rattles open.
“We’re there!” Miss Booth chimes, “grab your luggage!”
We’re pushed along by a crowd of children. We’re taken to a church hall and told to line up. Grace holds my hand tight, her toy rabbit in the other, “What’s happening, George? Is Ma meeting us for our holiday?”
Tears prick my eyes. Grace still doesn’t understand.
“I think we’re going to meet our new family,” I say.
The children are led out in pairs. We climb on chairs to look out the window and see them being matched to families. I try to spot Tommy, hoping to get my marbles back, but he’s nowhere to be seen. Then he comes out with his sister. A family greets them, but something’s wrong. The grownups shake their heads and Miss Booth leads the two back into the hall.
“Snobs!” Tommy shouts, “S’not fair!”
“Calm down!” says Miss Booth, “I’ve got an idea.”
She combs Tommy’s messy hair and wipes his sister’s grubby face. Then she looks around the children, “George and Grace, come here!” she says, “I need a favour.”
She explains that she needs to borrow our smart coats to make Tommy and his sister Sally look neat. “Don’t worry, you’ll get them back,” she promises.
Tommy sulks but they put our coats on.
Grace howls, “That’s my coat!”
“Shush, Grace!” I say, “They need to get a nice family.”
They go to meet the next family and the grownups smile and lead Tommy and Sally away. As they walk off, Miss Booth whips our coats off them and runs back into the church hall.
“It worked!” she shouts gleefully.
Later, when we’re settled with our new family there’s a knock on the door. It’s Tommy, “Here’s yer ollies!” he says, handing me my bag of marbles, “Sorry I pinched them. Thanks for lending us your coats. We got the best family! The butcher! We get extra sausages!”
I smile. Something tells me, Tommy and me are going to be friends.