Prickling with nervous energy, the small hands reached for their coats, prising them from the upturned pegs that began and ended each and every school day. Equally routine was the jostling for position in the march out of the school house: a shimmering line of tanned satchels rubbing and coaxing leather; a sea of untidy bodies threading their way through the grey-lit hallway; and there, next to the bright red telephone box, the perennial mores were to cease: the tiny uniformed children thronging, waiting for a call; one that would tell them to leave behind their old lives and all that they knew. But this was no ordinary evacuation, for the bombs had rarely threatened to disturb this peaceful haven in the Purbeck Hills; instead, the land had been taken from within. Whilst the radio buzzed with sightings of the wings of the Luftwaffe eagles, it was the khaki conversation of the Nissan huts that had ultimately decided their fate. And four years after the war had begun, on a bitterly cold day, the Creech village postmaster had delivered to each household the letters that brought the unwelcome news of evacuation.
As the Grebbel children huddled together, they looked up at the flags, fluttering around in the tireless wind, and soon they thought of nothing but snow and Christmas. Though barbed wire had become a familiar sight in the landscape, as had the tank traps along the coast, the community had come together to celebrate with defiant vigour throughout each of the war years. But now, with the impending scattering of families across the coastal hills, there would be little to rejoice.
Daphne Grebbel looked commanding behind the wheel having taken driving lessons and tractor maintenance courses in the early years of the war. The army had told her to be gone by Christmas; they had planned to put guns on the ridge behind the house and fire over it. No information had been conveyed personally; just letters, all formal, all paying little heed to the efforts she had made to double her output for the war whilst maintaining a meagre living for her family. And all this accomplished in the shadow of loss.
Their relocation was to be a brand new house near Lulworth but one entirely impractical for a family who had spent generations milking cows and tending crops. The official line was that places were hard to find; and so they were ‘politely’ informed that as they were unable to accept the offer, relocation had now become their responsibility. Left with little choice, they would have to be ‘taken in’: Mrs Grebbel’s aunt owned a smallholding near East Holme and there they would hope to grow fruit and veg, keep some chickens and run a couple of pigs or sheep. Not ideal, but it would do.
As the van approached, Anne and Harry picked up their coats and bags, and readied themselves for the big day. Although they had been aware of the plan to evacuate and re-house the village for some time now, its shadow had rarely touched them; when they had seen an angry crowd gathered outside the Post Office arguing with army officials two days before, they had swept its significance aside and considered it to be just the war effort ‘gone wobbly’.
Jumping into the cabin, the day felt like any other: fighting over scratchy blankets on leather seats that smelled of stale dog was the norm; but today, their sibling squabbles came to a sudden halt when each had turned to see the back of the van piled high with the entire contents of their home.
Harry sighed, his lip curled. He was angry. ” You’ve seen it before. Why bother?”
“Hope — it gives me hope that one day we’ll come back,” retorted Anne, sharply.
“Of course we’ll come back,” interjected Mrs Grebbel. Her tone was soft and soothing; but there was something in her eyes that stole away the note of promise. “A few months and it’ll all be over. We’ll back home in no time.”
The van stopped beside the tiny church and Anne dashed up the path, hoping that the sign had been replaced by another announcing the evacuation to be one elaborate joke. But it was still there. Of course it was. She sighed gently and read aloud, ignorant to the presence of any audience:
Please treat the church and houses with care; we have given up our homes where many of us lived for generations to help win the war to keep men free.
We shall return one day and thank you for treating the village kindly.
Though the board had been nailed to the church door only a week before, Anne had read the sign countless times; and each time it had left her with a remarkably different feeling. There had been rumours: some warned that once belongings were packed up, homes tipped up and turned out, backs turned away, it was the very last they would see of their beloved little village; but today, Anne’s heart was brimming with hope: she knew that one day they would all return. Continue reading