sjhstrangetales

KEEPER’S COTTAGE

SUMMER 1940

 

1.

 

Sylvia woke up suddenly and immediately peered over the side of her bed to make sure her emergency bundle was still in place.  After a few moments she realised that the loud thump she had heard was a van door slamming out in the lane, and not a bomb dropping.   There followed a rat-tat-tat at her front door.

 “Hold on a moment!” she called out.

 She slid out of bed and groped for her dressing-gown, sliding her feet into her slippers.  The floorboards of the old cottage creaked under her feet as she hurriedly ran down the box staircase.  

 “Sorry Miss Bennett”, said Tommy Wickens, when Sylvia opened the door “Didn’t mean to disturb you, but I’ve got some eggs for you”.

 “Oh Tommy, how very kind of you”, said Sylvia, gratefully taking the box from him.

 “No problem”, said Tommy “The hens are doing well at the moment.  I thought all the noise of the guns might put ‘em off their lay, but not a bit of it.  Doing real splendid they are”.

 This was quite probably the longest speech Sylvia had ever heard Tommy make.  Ever since she had first met him he seemed to stare at her in nervous awe, barely uttering a word.  But he seemed to have got more relaxed in her presence of late.  

 “Our feathered friends are clearly very resilient”, Sylvia laughed.

 “Mum was wondering if you was alright here”, said Tommy “She hoped the noise of the guns wasn’t worrying you too much”.

 “I’m fine”, said Sylvia “I keep my emergency bundle by my bed”.

 “Your emergency bundle?”

 “For the air-raid shelter.  I keep my torch, a blanket, and a pack of playing-cards in it.  I can seize everything in one go then if I have to evacuate in the middle of the night”.

 “What a swell idea”, said Tommy, who couldn’t have looked more impressed if she had won the War single-handed “Mind you, we practically keeps a spare house in ours.  Even got bunk beds down there now.  Mum says you can come over anytime if you gets frightened here”.

 Sylvia thanked him, and said that Miss Crossley nearby had also made the same kind offer.  

 “Aye, she’s alright”, said Tommy “For a poshie”.

 He bid her a cheery good-day, and returned to his van.  Sylvia took the eggs through to her tiny, dark little kitchen at the back of the cottage.  The bush outside the window had got so over-grown that it practically obscured all light, giving the room a green, underwater feel.  Sylvia knew she should probably cut it back, but she rather liked it.  It made the room feel very private.  

 She raked the ashes in the stove, and filled the kettle using the small hand-pump at the sink.  The cottage was only a simple little two-up two-down, but Sylvia felt blissfully happy here.  She knew some in the locality were still a bit agog about a young woman living on her own, who didn’t seem to possess any family, but Sylvia relished her freedom.  Many times that happiness came contaminated with guilt.  Did she have a right to be so happy with War raging all around her?  There was talk of imminent invasion all around her at the moment, and after months in the doldrums the bombing had finally started.  Sylvia knew that if the Nazi’s ever set foot on British soil, she would defend her country to the hilt, even if it meant trying to see them off with a broom, but even so, the thought of signing up and donning a uniform dismayed her.  She hoped that, being aged 42, she would be considered too old for military service, but she knew that all women, unless they were very old, sick, or bringing up young children, were doing war work of some kind.  Even Miss Crossley, who was nudging 70, was doing Air Raid Warden duty.  Sylvia felt very conscious of the fact that she wasn’t doing terribly much, other than enduring and surviving, but then so was everyone else.

 

 It was a hot day.  Sylvia washed herself at the kitchen sink, then changed out of the men’s pyjama’s she wore in bed, and into slacks and an old shirt.  She shoved her hair back into a chignon, and went round the back to do some gardening.  She was trying to do her bit for the War effort by growing her own vegetables, but she felt a total novice at it.  Her previous knowledge of gardening had been limited to watering pot plants.  

 Beyond the intense heat of the garden she could hear the guns in the very far distance, reverberating all the way from France.  It was a sound that never failed to send a shiver down her.  She tried to imagine what it must be like over there at the moment.  She had seen the men returning punch-drunk and exhausted from the horrors of Dunkirk, but it was still hard to grasp.  Everything in her immediate vicinity was so still and peaceful.   “We don’t know how lucky we are to have that vital strip of water around us here in Blighty, my dear”, as Miss Crossley, her neighbour and landlady, was fond of saying.

 The humidity became too much, and Sylvia returned to the peaceful cool of the cottage.  Her front door was propped open, and she sat for a moment on the sofa, drinking a glass of water, and staring at a white butterfly fluttering around the hedge outside.  

 “Oh this damn War”, she said to herself “If only it would go away”.

 

 On Wednesday she had to go to the nearest town to do some shopping, and cycled there, as she normally did.  By the time she had accomplished the three mile route she was sweating profusely, and felt very self-conscious.  In the baking streets of Nonstead, everyone was strolling around as if it was just a normal summer’s day.  The women wore colourful, pretty cotton dresses, and some of the men sported dashing Panama hats.  The outfits were offset by the incongruous sight of the gas-masks in their cardboard cases slung over everyone’s shoulders.  

 Outside a greengrocer’s Sylvia was delighted to find punnets of strawberries for sale.  Knowing that she couldn’t bank on them being there the next time she looked, she hastily grabbed a box.  

 “Some say Hitler could be in London by the middle of August”, a middle-aged woman was saying in the queue inside.

 The greengrocer saw Sylvia coming in, and hastily signalled to the woman to hush.  Sylvia knew that he would have done this with anybody entering the shop (“careless talk costs lives”), but it was still hard not to feel a flicker of hurt that she was an outsider, not to be trusted.

 “We’ll deal with everything as it comes”, said the greengrocer, gravitating over to Sylvia “Anything else, love?”

 “No, just these please”, said Sylvia, shyly.  

 “I notice you haven’t taken any evacuees or refugees yet”, the woman practically snorted at Sylvia.

 (How on earth could she know that? Thought Sylvia, I don’t know this woman, I’ve never seen her before).

 “I have told the authorities I have a spare room”, said Sylvia, wishing she didn’t automatically sound so defensive “It’s tiny, but it’s there.  They haven’t sent anyone to be billeted with me that’s all”.

 “I can’t see Miss Bennett fitting many into that little cottage of hers”, said the greengrocer “It’s no bigger than a shoebox, and they don’t like to separate kids from their mothers”.

 This at least diverted the woman from snorting contemptuously at Sylvia to snorting contemptuously at evacuee’s.

 “Some right horror tales I’ve heard”, she said “Filthy, you wouldn’t think they’d ever had a bath, and absolute ungrateful wretches, some of them.  Keep moaning that they’re homesick for the City, you’d think they’d be grateful to be safe”.

 Sylvia paid for the strawberries, and stuffed the brown paper parcel into her string-bag.

 “Going to eat all those yourself are you?” said the woman.

 “Good day to you”, said Sylvia, leaving the shop as hurriedly as she could.

 Why do we do this? She thought, back outside on the pavement, why do we never tell people like that how obnoxious they are?  Is it because we’re too English?  Frightened of creating a scene?  Will we be like that if the Germans get here?  Biting down sharp ripostes to them because we don’t want to cause offence?  More likely, sneaking something very unpleasant in their tea, she smiled to herself.  

 She was so busy arranging her bags in the basket of her bicycle, that she inadvertently stepped backwards into the direct path of a man walking along the pavement.

 “Oh I’m so sorry”, she said.

 “That’s alright”, he gave a thin smile, and made a token attempt to touch his hat to her.

 He was very thin and pale, as though he’d spent months in a cellar somewhere, or confined to bed in a darkened room.  He was smartly dressed in a tailored suit, but it hung off him.  He walked on, but then seemed to change his mind, and he retraced his steps.

 “I wonder if you could help me”, he said.

 “I’ll try my best”, said Sylvia, staring into his wire-rimmed spectacles.  He had one of those inscrutable faces where it is very hard to detect a person’s character on first meeting them.

 “I’m looking for lodgings in the area”, he said.  His voice was well-educated, softly-spoken “For two people, possibly.  It doesn’t have to be in the town, in fact I think we would prefer to be more rural”.

 “Well there are some accommodation cards in the Post Office window”, said Sylvia “I’ve often seen rooms advertised there”.

 “Mm”, he didn’t sound impressed with this idea “I would prefer a house I think.  Living in rooms can be intolerable.  Very little privacy, and I don’t like having people too close by”.

 “One of my neighbours, Miss Crossley, owns property in the area which she rents out”, said Sylvia “I rent from her myself.  I think there is a house which is empty at the moment, but I have no idea what it’s like”.  

 Sylvia noticed that he kept switching from “we” to “I” as though he wasn’t entirely confident that the other person would be joining him.  

 “That sounds promising”, said the man “Can you give me her contact details?”

 Sylvia gave him Miss Crossley’s address and telephone number.  She felt uneasy.  One heard so many dark stories since the War had started, of burglary rates shooting up, that sort of thing.  The older generation, somewhat predictably, talked of a breakdown in moral values.  

 

2.

 

 “I’m so sorry to be a nuisance, my dear”, said Miss Crossley, appearing over the garden wall the next day “But could you show a man round the empty house today.  I know it’s short-notice, but a dratted ARP meeting has suddenly been called for this afternoon, and I can’t really get out of it”.

 “No of course not”, said Sylvia.  She always felt daunted by how dedicated Miss Crossley was to her War work.  She felt like a lazy parasite by comparison.  

 “I hope this isn’t ominous”, Sylvia continued “The meeting suddenly being called I mean”.

 “Well I’m rather afraid it might be”, said Miss Crossley “All sorts of horrid rumours doing the rounds, which doesn’t help matters.  People do like stirring things up.  It’s not terribly helpful.  Anyway, I’ll give you the key.  He’s said he’ll be here at 2 o’clock.  Name of Jarrod.  He sounded very polite on the telephone, which is a relief.  Good manners seem to be declining so much these days”.

 

 At 1:30 that afternoon Sylvia changed into a light summer frock.  She thought she’d better make some effort to look presentable, as she was representing Miss Crossley.  She patted her hair tidy, and dabbed some powder on her face.  She contemplated applying lipstick, but thought that might be too much.  She didn’t want to look like the desperate spinster of the parish, ridiculously overcome at the thought of speaking to a man.

 Keeper’s Cottage was a short distance away from the cottages inhabited by herself and Miss Crossley.  Situated up the lane, on the edge of the forest, it backed onto open fields.  It was a humid, overcast afternoon, the kind that feels pregnant with foreboding.  Highly apt for the present, thought Sylvia.   

 As she approached the cottage, she saw that the Army had positioned a truck in a field in the near distance.  On the back it sported a gun carriage, with it’s barrels pointing up at the sky.  A handful of troops hung around it in a semi-bored fashion, smoking and chatting lethargically.

 “What are they doing there?” came the man’s voice.  He was leaning out of the window of his car.

 “I-I don’t know”, said Sylvia “They’ve been doing training round the village quite a bit lately.  I suspect it’s just some exercise of some sort”.

 Mr Jarrod seemed irritated by their presence.  That’s scarcely my fault, thought Sylvia.  It’s Wartime, what does he expect?  He got out of his car, and slammed the door.  He noticed that the heel of his shoe had accumulated some mud, and he began to wipe it off with a handkerchief in a fastidious fashion.  He cast another irritated look in the direction of the troops, and then marched towards the house, as though he hadn’t another moment to lose.

 

 “How long has it been empty?”

 It was the first time he had spoken since entering the building.  Sylvia had shown him round the compact rooms, feeling herself gushing like an over-enthusiastic estate-agent.  The man had kept the same inscrutable, somewhat disdainful expression throughout.  Damnit, show some emotion, thought Sylvia.  This could be a charming little cottage, and many people would feel themselves damn lucky to get it.  

 “About a year”, said Sylvia “The last tenant died just before War broke out.  He was very old.  He had worked as a farm labourer all his life.  Had lived here for about 40 years …”

 “Yes Miss Bennett, I don’t need his life history”, said the man, abruptly.  

 He marched into the kitchen at the back of the house.  It was basic, but it had everything that one could need.

 “I’m surprised it hasn’t become over-run with refugees”, said Mr Jarrod.

 “I think Miss Crossley is too”, said Sylvia “Perhaps it’s a bit too out of the way, not terribly convenient for the village.  Although personally I think it would be a wonderful  place for children.  All the fields and the woods to play in”.

 He opened a door in the corner of the room, and peered down the steps.

 “What’s down there?” he asked.

 “Just the cellar”, said Sylvia “It’s empty.  A good size.  You’ll have your own built-in air-raid shelter”.

 “Mm”, for the first time the man seemed to show a flicker of enthusiasm.  It was only a flicker, but there all the same.

 “There are two bedrooms upstairs, and even a fully-fitted bathroom”, said Sylvia “Quite unusual for out here.  Some cottages in this area don’t even have mains water yet”.

 “I’ll take a look at that now”, said the man.

 

 “Did he seem keen at all?” asked Miss Crossley, when Sylvia returned the keys to her later that that afternoon.

 “As far as I could tell”, said Sylvia “Not exactly the sort to leap up and down and wave his hat in the air.  A bit of a cold-fish in fact.  Why does he want to move out here?  Why isn’t he doing War-work of some kind?”

 “Well I rather think he is, of a backroom nature.  I didn’t really like to inquire too much”, said Miss Crossley “He told me he’s been excused from military service due to a health problem.  I think it might be a weak heart, which might explain why he wants to come out here for some peace and quiet.  Although between you and me, I don’t think there will be terribly much of that when the show really kicks off, even around here.  Perhaps I should warn him?  Oh dear, but that might be divulging too much information.  One has to be so careful these days”.

 “I think we all know something is about to happen”, said Sylvia “And there’s so much wild speculation going on round here already.  If he’s anything to do with a government department, I expect he already knows”.

 “Yes of course, silly me”, said Miss Crossley “And if if was that much of a problem, they would move him to Wales or Cumbria perhaps.  You mustn’t let his terseness bother you, my dear.  Some men are just terribly shy, and it can come out that way.  He might even be very self-conscious about his health problem.  We don’t know how much hostility he’s had for it back in London, although it’s nothing like it was back in the last War.  Oh dear me no, I remember some people doling out white feathers on public transport, whenever they saw a young man who wasn’t in uniform.  Horribly cruel.  At least we seem to have learnt something from that at least”.

 

3.

 

For the next couple of weeks Sylvia was constantly on call, supervising alterations being made to Keeper’s Cottage.  Mr Jarrod had accepted the rental of the property, but he seemed to require a great deal of alterations to be made before he could move in.  As Miss Crossley was very busy with her air-raid precaution duties, Sylvia was often required to step up to the plate to let in workmen, and insure that the house was secure again when they had left for the day.

 She didn’t mind.  She enjoyed cycling along the quiet lane to the cottage, and it made her feel of some use, however minimal that might be on the great scale of things.  It also helped to take her mind off the ongoing state of the War.  The rumour-mill was still in overdrive.  Hitler was now supposed to arrive in the first week of July, but as of yet there was still no sign of the wretched man.  She found the cottage to be a peaceful refuge, in spite of the constant comings-and-goings of various carpenters, painters, and vacuum cleaner salesmen.

 “Any idea what he’s going to use that cellar for?” asked one of the chippies, one morning “It’s quite a rabbit-warren down there”.

 “No, an air-raid shelter would be the logical thing I suppose”, said Sylvia, dragging herself away from the historical novel she had been reading in the kitchen.

 “Rather him than me”, said the chippy “I think I’d rather take me chances up here with the bombs!”

 “What makes you say that?” asked Sylvia.

 “Nothing, just gives me the creeps that’s all”, said the chippy “Take no notice of me.  My imagination must be going into overdrive.  Mind if I put the kettle on?”

 

 Sylvia stayed at the cottage until about 5 o’clock, when the men knocked off work.  She saw them off the premises, and went around checking the doors and windows.  She thanked her lucky stars that it was Summer, and she wasn’t having to do this at dusk.  As she wheeled her bicycle out into the lane she could hear the guns again in the far distance.  She knew that London was getting heavy bombing, and everyone knew it was only a matter of time before they began raining down on the Nonstead area.  

 “I must join a First Aid class”, thought Sylvia, as she cycled along the lane.  

 Back at the cottage she found that someone – most likely Tommy Wickens – had left a brown paper bag full of raspberries on her doorstep.  Sylvia set aside some for bottling, and took the rest into the garden, to eat them straight out of the bag.

 

 “I’ve just had a telephone call from Mr Jarrod, he plans to move in sometime over the next few days”, announced Miss Crossley, the following morning, as she paid a flying visit to Sylvia’s cottage.

 “B-but I don’t think we’ll be ready”, said Sylvia “The lino’s not down in the kitchen, and the painter is still working on the bedrooms …”

 “My dear, I don’t think it bothers him”, said Miss Crossley “I get the distinct impression he is anxious to be out of London as soon as possible, and who can blame him?  Everyone must be very worried there.  Are you alright Sylvia?  You seem a little down in the dumps”.

 “No I’m fine”, said Sylvia “I’ve just been listening to the wireless, all about the tea rationing”.

 “Yes, that is a great test for us British”, Miss Crossley gave a little laugh “How on earth will we manage?  But we must take it as all part of the sacrifice”.

 Sylvia found it hard to rise to Miss Crossley’s level of saintliness.  It wasn’t so much the tea-rationing that bothered her – she lived alone so she was sure she would be able to eke it out somehow – it was the condescending manner of the man announcing this great sacrifice.  With his plummy voice and his patronising air, he carried with him very much an attitude of Superior Man Lecturing The Plebs About Their Duty.  Sylvia was increasingly noticing this with the government broadcasts, and she wished it didn’t bother her so much.

 “Anyway I must push on”, said Miss Crossley, gathering up her handbag and gas-mask case  “Another dratted meeting, how they do ramble on so.   If you could try and chivvy the men along a little, my dear.  I know it’s a lot to ask, but I would appreciate it”.

 Sylvia instantly felt a pang of conscience that she had been too lenient as a foreman.  She had been quite content to sit in the kitchen at the house, reading her book, as they traipsed about around her.  “I should be more of a dragon”, she thought, and almost laughed at the very idea.

 “This weather’s so muggy”, said Miss Crossley, standing in the open doorway and looking up at the sky, which was filled with clouds which seemed to just hover there and refuse to do anything “All so very portentous.  Ah there I go again, letting my imagination run wild.  That’s not helpful to anyone is it!  See you later, my dear”.

 She blew Sylvia an air-kiss and went on her way.

 

 Sylvia spent the following night in a state of high anxiety, but this had nothing to do with Mr Jarrod’s imminent arrival.  There was heavy bombing only a few miles away, and sometimes it felt as though the bombs were raining down directly on her own little house.  This, combined with the sound of gunfire in the distance, made for a thoroughly unsettling night.  She finally managed to doze off at around 5 AM, and grabbed a couple of hours of vey heavy sleep, filled with chaotic dreams.

 After breakfast she picked up her bag, gas-mask, and novel, and made her way up the lane.  She settled down in the kitchen as per usual, but no workmen arrived.  There was in fact no sign of anyone all morning.

 “So much for chivvying them along”, she thought, wondering how she was going to break this to Miss Crossley.  “She won’t directly blame me, but it will feel as though she is.  How very tiresome”.

 At lunchtime a black cab pulled up outside the gate, and decanted Mr Jarrod.  He stood in the lane, blinking at the house from behind his wire-framed spectacles.  At his feet was a single, battered suitcase, over which was draped a raincoat.  He was clearly a man who had perfected the art of travelling light.

 “I’m afraid you will have to take us as you find us, Mr Jarrod”, said Sylvia, going to out to greet him.  She had decided to take the Brazening It Out approach, instead of the Obseqious Apologetic one.

 Mr Jarrod simply stared at her as if he had no idea what she was talking about.

 “I mean the builders aren’t finished yet”, said Sylvia.

 “It’s alright”, said Mr Jarrod, his voice sounding slightly slurred “I told the Crossley woman I didn’t mind as long as I could come early”.

 Sylvia felt slightly put-out by his offhand way of referring to Miss Crossley, who had only ever spoken about him with kindness and understanding.  But the slurring of his voice made her wonder if he was on medication, and she made allowances.

 “Would you like me to help you in?” she said.

 She expected him to refuse, but he nodded in agreement, leaving her to pick up his case and raincoat whilst he paid off the taxi-driver.

 The house seemed even more spartan and unfinished when they got inside.  It didn’t feel at all homely, and Sylvia felt sorry for him, having to make his nest here all alone.

 “Would you like me to get you some supplies in, from the village?” she offered “Just to tide you over for a couple of days?”

 “No, I’m expecting a delivery later”, said Mr Jarrod “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine”.

 The house also felt chilly on this overcast day, and Sylvia wanted to show him how to light the kitchen stove, but by this point it was obvious that she had out-stayed her welcome.

 “I’m only at the little pink cottage at the bottom of the lane if you need anything”, said Syvia “I’m usually around most of the time”.

 

4.

 

Gull’s Nest Guest-House

Brighton

 

17th July 1940

 

My Dear Sylvia

 

I’m so sorry it’s been so long since I last wrote you.  Goodness, it must have been before the evacuation of Dunkirk!  I hope all is well where you are.  Everything is very apprehensive here on the coast, but we are coping.  There is constant talk of the invasion, which has everyone feeling very jittery.  The beaches have become a no-go area, with barbed wire and armed soldiers everywhere.  So much for us hoping that the summer season would be unaffected!  I envy you your little rural retreat, although I expect you are constantly on edge with the news from London.  All anyone can seem to talk about is whether that ghastly little man will arrive in the next few weeks.   Well he needn’t expect a welcoming cup of tea if he does, not unless I put some weed-killer in it first!  I would love to come and see you sometime, but travelling anywhere is absolutely intolerable at the moment.  

 

Anyway, I’ll save notepaper for now.  I have no idea even what it is I’m allowed to write anymore!   Will they censor this, do you think?  I would hate for you to receive a letter from me with heavy black lines all the way through it.

 

Your ever loving, Aunty Patty

 

 Many times during this hot spell Sylvia had wished she was down by the seaside, but going from Aunty Patty’s letter it didn’t sound very nice at the moment.  And the thought of travelling there, packed like a sardine in a tin, on an overcrowded train, was unendurable.  

 Things weren’t much better at home though.  Miss Crossley was beginning to feel like a sore trial.  Sylvia had always been aware that she was one of Nature’s bustlers, and she was coming into her element in Wartime, but just lately her bossiness was beginning to feel relentless.  It didn’t seem to matter where Sylvia was, Miss Crossley always seemed to loom up demanding yet another “little favour, my dear”.  Sylvia felt guilty for the resentment this incurred in her.  As everyone was very fond of saying, “there is a war on”, and “we must all pull together”.   But there were times when Sylvia couldn’t help feeling that the world was suddenly exactly as the Miss Crossleys wanted it.  Team spirit was running rampant.

 She was standing in the queue at the village shop one morning when Miss Crossley appeared out of nowhere and said “we might get a little drop of rain later, could you get the towels in from the line in my garden, I’ve got another beastly meeting you know”.  The barometer was Set Fair, there was no rain forecast, but Sylvia had to stifle a sigh and play the good neighbour.  

 “I’ve got a man in this morning to do some work in my kitchen, could you keep an eye on him for me?  You were so good with the builders at Mr Jarrod’s house”.  (That’s not what you said at the time, thought Sylvia).

 And now today: “could you pop along and have a little word with Mr Jarrod, my dear?  I glimpsed his light through the trees very late last night.  It’s really not acceptable”.

 “B-but you’re the ARP warden!” Sylvia protested “Wouldn’t he take more notice with it coming from you?”

 “My dear I can’t be everywhere you know”, said Miss Crossley, with a hint of steel in her voice “We must all ….”

 “Pull together, yes I know”.

 “That’s the spirit!”

 

 Sylvia sighed and dug out her bicycle, although in the heat she ended up pushing it most of the way along the lane.  The air was like soup, it was so humid.  As she reached the house, she noticed the back of a man’s head.  Mr Jarrod was seated in an armchair, with his back to the window.  It was the first time Sylvia had seen him without his ubiquitous hat on, and she noticed that he had a small bald patch at the crown of his head.  It somehow made him seem more human.

 “I do hate to be a busybody”, said Sylvia, when Mr Jarrod came to the door “But Miss Crossley asks if you could be a bit more careful with your lights.  She saw it coming from your house late last night”.

 “And she sent you along to do her dirty work”, Mr Jarrod smiled for the first time.

 “I know”, Sylvia sighed “And I’m not a natural ARP warden”.

 “And she definitely is!” said Mr Jarrod “Centuries ago she’d have been put in a ducking-stool on the village pond!”

 A few weeks ago Sylvia would have taken umbrage at a such a remark, but all too often lately she had seen a side to Miss Crossley that she really didn’t like.  She declined to comment.

 “That’s the trouble with these old spinsters”, said Mr Jarrod “Nowhere else to direct their energies, so they turn it on the world at large”.

 Sylvia felt rattled by the “spinsters” comment.

 “I can think of plenty of grandmothers who are like that too!” she retorted, and then wished she hadn’t risen to the bait so easily.

 She pushed her bicycle home in a thoroughly disgruntled mood.

 

 Sylvia liked to think that it was wholly a noble wish to aid the War effort which made her sign up for First Aid classes, but she knew it was also a desire to prove to Miss Crossley that she wasn’t to be taken for granted as being available 24 hours a day for her convenience.   Miss Crossley now seemed to constantly assume that Sylvia was there at her beck and call, like an unpaid acolyte.  The First Aid classes would at least mean she was out of the old woman’s range on many evenings.  They were due to be held at the Village Hall, and Sylvia looked forward to spending Summer evenings bicycling to and from there.

 She had the intense satisfaction of seeing Miss Crossley looking temporarily flummoxed by this news (and not a little put out).

 “Oh”, she snapped, and then rallied “Well of course that’s excellent news, my dear.  We must all ….”

 “Do our bit”, Sylvia said again “Yes I know”.

 

5.

 

A strange woman came to the door one morning.  She was trim of figure, very smartly-dressed in a tailored powder-blue suit with a matching pillbox hat and a little veil over her eyes.  

 “Are you Miss Sylvia Bennett?” she asked, in a brisk, no-nonsense kind of voice.

 “I am”, said Sylvia, self-consciously aware of her habitual gardening slacks and unironed shirt “May I help you?”

 “I understand you are looking after Mr Jarrod whilst he is here”, said the woman.

 “Well I wouldn’t go that far!”

 “Oh?”

 “Would you like to come in?”

 Sylvia held the door open for her, and the visitor stepped straight into the cool, dark interior of the cottage living-room.  She looked around her.  She seemed to the kind of a person who had a naturally superior air, and Sylvia instinctively knew that she was noticing the dust on some of the surfaces, and the newspapers discarded carelessly over the table and the back of the sofa.

 “Would you care for a glass of homemade wine?” Sylvia asked.

 “Homemade wine”, said the woman “How quaint”.

 In the light of anything more forthcoming (or polite) Sylvia took this as an assent.  She switched off the wireless set, which was blaring out a jolly dance tune, and went into the kitchen.  She returned with a tray, on which she had placed a bottle of elderflower wine and two glasses.

 “Did you make it yourself?” asked the woman.

 “No”, said Sylvia, and declined to mention that she had won it on the tombola at the village fete last year, as no doubt this would induce a remark of ‘how quaint!’ too.  

 “Do you know Mr Jarrod?” said Sylvia, when she had poured the drinks.

 “We are acquainted”, the woman replied.

 The woman’s deliberate air of mystery was grating, and not a little unsettling, if only because she reminded Sylvia of the sort of woman who might appear in the newspapers, standing trial for stabbing her high society love rival with a cocktail stick, or some such nonsense.

 “You seem to know my name”, said Sylvia “May I ask yours?”

 “Jasmine Hall”, said the woman, briskly “Mr Jarrod and I have interests in common”.

 “Why did you think I was looking after him?” said Sylvia.

 “I asked in the village”, said the woman “I was informed that you were overseeing the changes to his house and helping him to settle in”.

 Sylvia cursed the village mindset, which had turned her supervising the builders into some kind of cosy domestic set-up, where she acted as Mr Jarrod’s nursemaid … and heaven knows what else to boot!

 “I kept an eye on the house whilst it was being re-decorated, that is all”, said Sylvia “I really don’t know Mr Jarrod at all, except in a very passing acquaintance way”.

 “I see”, Jasmine Hall set the glass of wine – barely touched – on the stone hearth of the fireplace “His arrival in your midst must have caused some … well how shall I put it … not a little excitement in your close vicinity?”

 “To be honest, Miss Hall, it has rather got buried under all the War news”, said Sylvia, who didn’t like being made to feel like a silly rustic spinster, twittering like something out of a Jane Austen novel, because a strange man had appeared in the district “I was merely doing Miss Crossley, our landlady, a little favour, that is all”.

 “No need to be tetchy, my sweet”, said Jasmine “I wasn’t implying anything on your part.  Our Mr Jarrod is scarcely Errol Flynn material now is he!”

 “I’m really not sure why you’ve come to see me, Miss Hall”.

 “I’d heard James had moved here, and I thought I’d come and check out his new home”, said the woman, dabbing at her lipsticked mouth with a little lace handkerchief “See who his new friends are”.

 “Well as I’ve said, we’re hardly friends”, said Sylvia “He is simply a neighbour who lives up the lane that is all”.

 “How very rural and idyllic that sounds”, said Jasmine “I must be getting off”.

 With great relief Sylvia saw her to the front door.  Just as she was about to step back over the threshold Jasmine turned and smirked.

 “Delightful little cottage”, she said “So quaint.  But what on earth do you do here all by yourself?  Keep cats?”

 “Goodbye Miss Hall”, said Sylvia, firmly.

 She closed the door, and then watched from the living-room window, to make sure this unwanted visitor actually left the premises completely.  There was no sign of a car parked anywhere in the lane, and Sylvia could only assume she had somehow got a lift from the station in Nonstead.  

 Sylvia spent the rest of the day fretting as to whether she should warn Mr Jarrod that a strange woman had been checking out his new life here in the village, and then decided that Mr Jarrod was quite old enough to look out for himself.

 

 It was the first evening of her new First Aid lessons.  Sylvia ate a supper of sausages and fried tomatoes, in the middle of which she angrily switched off a nagging government broadcast on the wireless, this time hectoring people to save more.  

 “For what?” she snarled “When people don’t know if they’re going to be alive from one day to the next!  I’ll spend my money as and when I feel like it, thank you very much”.

 She dug out her bicycle, and rode down to the village hall.  The meeting turned out to be quite fun, and Sylvia enjoyed herself trying to wrap up Mr Beesley, the greengrocer, in bandages.  By the time she’d finished, she felt she could give the Egyptian mummies a run for their money.  

 The meeting finished at 9PM.  As they left the hall it was already deep twilight.  It reminded Sylvia that it wouldn’t be long before Autumn was upon them, and she dreaded the return of the dark nights.  The thought of surviving the Winter with blackouts, food rationing, and fuel shortages was enough to make her shiver.  

 She called goodnight to her fellow First Aid-ers, and set out along the lane to her cottage.  As she cycled along she heard strains of music coming from further along the lane.  Out of curiosity she got off her bicycle, and pushed it along the rutted ground.  Mr Jarrod’s cottage came into view.  The music was coming from there, and a light, unshielded by any form of curtain or blackout material, blazed out.  

 “Oh now really!” she sighed “The wretched man.  He’s being so thoughtless”.  

 She propped her bicycle against the fence, and impatiently rang the doorbell.  

 “Mr Jarrod!” she called out “Mr Jarrod, please!  Your light is showing!”

 “Hey Jim!” a man’s voice could be heard shouting from inside the cottage “I think your ARP Warden’s at the door!  What a lark, old boy!”

 Suddenly the door opened a tiny crack and Mr Jarrod’s face appeared, although looking nothing like his usual gloomy, austere self.  His eyes were glazed, and his face was plastered with a sickly grin.  He looked like a gargoyle, something grotesque found on a Medieval cathedral.  

 “Mr Jarrod, please, we have asked you before”, said Sylvia, feeling slightly afraid.  Mr Jarrod seemed insane.  “It’s the rules, and public safety.  Please play the game now”.

 “The game?” he wheezed “Ah yes, and it is a game, my dear, it is a game”.

 “Mr Jarrod, you leave me no choice but to report you to the authorities”, said Sylvia.

 She retreated from the house.  Confrontation of any kind upset her, and there was something so utterly strange about this one.  She turned when she reached her bicycle, only to find Mr Jarrod sticking his tongue out at her in a ghastly leer.  Sylvia decided to leave at once, before he attempted anything even more obscene.  By the time she got home she was in tears.  

 

6.

 

 As a consequence of this horrid little scene Sylvia had a rotten night’s sleep, not helped by a bombing alert just before midnight.  She finally fell asleep around 2 AM, only to be woken up just before 8 o’clock by a man from the village repairing the decaying wooden fence in front of Miss Crossley’s house.

 “Damnit”, Sylvia sighed “I hate my life at the moment”.

 After breakfast she dragged herself down to the village store for some urgent supplies.  The talk in the queue this morning was the idea that Hitler might now try invading on the 4th of August, the anniversary of the outbreak of the last war.

 “I think he likes his special dates”, said one woman.

 “That sort do”, another replied, although it wasn’t terribly clear what she meant by that.

 Back home again, Sylvia tidied her room in a very lethargic fashion.  Eventually even this became too much, and she flopped backwards onto the bed, cursing the incessant hammering outside, which put paid to the idea of trying to sneak a little daytime nap.  Suddenly she heard the rattle of the letterbox as something was pushed through it.

 Sylvia went downstairs, hoping it might be another letter from Aunt Patty.  She desperately needed one of her good-humoured little missives at the moment.

 An envelope was poking through the gap.   Only her name was on the envelope, no address or stamp, with ‘BY HAND’ written in the corner.

 “If this is Miss Crossley again, wanting another favour”, Sylvia fumed, although Miss Crossley would be more likely to knock on the door, or use the telephone to contact her.

 

Keeper’s Cottage

30th July 1940

 

My Dear Miss Bennett

 

I really must apologise for my disgraceful behaviour last night when you called.  It really was indefensible.  I have been under considerable strain of late [haven’t we all? Thought Sylvia] and I suppose everything has taken it’s toll.  I appreciate you were only doing your civic duty.  Could you give my apologies to Miss Crossley when you see her too?  I don’t want to get into trouble with our local snoops now do I?

 

Your obedient servant, James Jarrod

 

Apologise to her yourself! Sylvia fumed.  He must think I was born yesterday!  What a snivelling, ingratiating note, tinged with Jarrod’s usual barbed attempt at wit.  Sylvia scrunched up the piece of paper into a little ball, and stuffed it in the front of the grate in the living-room fireplace.  She looked forward to setting a match to it when it was time to re-light the fire in the Autumn.

 

 The following morning a leaflet was delivered to the house, outlining what Sylvia would need to do in the event of an Invasion.

 “Good grief”, she thought “They must be certain something’s going to happen at any moment”.

 In a distracted, absent-minded fashion she folded the leaflet and put in her skirt pocket.  She found herself drifting out into the garden.  The apples on the bush by her fence were ripening nicely.  Sylvia retrieved a metal colander from the kitchen and filled it with the little rosy red delights.  

 “How lucky you are to have those, my dear”, came Miss Crossley’s voice over the fence “Fresh fruit is getting so hard to come by, particularly now the strawberries have gone over.  And I can’t remember the last time I saw a banana”.

 “You can help yourself to as many as you like, Miss Crossley”, Sylvia sighed “I have told you that before.  They are really yours I suppose.  And I don’t see any point in leaving them for the Germans to enjoy!”

 Miss Crossley looked flummoxed by this uncharacteristic outburst of irritation from Sylvia.

 “That’s very kind of you, my dear”, she replied, in a guarded voice.

 Sylvia took the apples into the kitchen and rinsed them under the tap.  As she was doing so there was a rat-tat-tat at the door.

 “Oh go away please, whoever you are”, Sylvia muttered.

 Even so, she wiped her hands on a tea-towel and went to answer the door.

 

 “Aunt Patty!” she exclaimed “Oh how wonderful to see you.  You were the last person I was expecting!”

 She hustled the older woman into the house, and flung her arms around her.  She couldn’t remember the last time she had had physical contact of any kind with another human being.  Aunt Patty trailed the aura of an Edwardian bohemian around with her.  From her piled up red hair (artificially reddened these days), to her love of jangly jewellery and silk shawls.  She had been an artist’s model in her heyday, and she was blessed with a unique combination of worldliness and innocence.   If she was going a bit too heavy on the face-powder these days, and starting to look a bit frayed around the edges, it didn’t matter.  It was Aunt Patty’s personality which lit up the room.  

 “I had to come and see you before everything gets too crazy”, said Aunt Patty, putting down the carpet-bag which served as her luggage “I keep hearing the most ghastly rumours, and I keep thinking of you stuck out here all on your own.  You’re my only living relative, my dear child”.

 “You have no idea how pleased I am to see you”, Sylvia found herself sobbing.

 “You poor thing, you seem to have been under the most awful strain”, Aunt Patty manoevered her towards one of the armchairs.

 “I can’t complain really”, said Sylvia, fumbling for a handkerchief “Compared to a lot of people I’m sure I have it pretty good”.

 “Comparisons are odious, Sylvia”, said Aunt Patty “One must never belittle one’s own problems.  There is always going to be someone worse off than ourselves.  It doesn’t make our own problems any less the trying.  And I can’t imagine it’s been easy coping with the strain of the War all on your own.  I’m so glad I have my guests to keep me occupied.  Some of them have been there so long now they’ve become old friends!”

 “Who’s minding Gull’s Nest?”

 “Jenny, my trusted helper.  I think she wants me out of the way for a little while so she can entertain some of the troops stationed in town, the little minx!  Morals will collapse all around us my dear, you see.  It’ll be like the last war all over again!”

 “I’ll make us some tea”, said Sylvia, getting to her feet.

 “You will not”, said Aunt Patty, reaching for her carpet-bag “I’ve heard a rumour that a leading Hollywood actress carries a bottle of vodka around in her knitting-bag with her.  Well I can’t run to vodka, but I have brought a bottle of sherry with me.  Fetch a couple of your nice little glasses”.

 

 “Everything seems to have become so strange of late”, said Sylvia, once they were ensconced with their glasses of sherry by the unlit fireplace “People are odd.  I know that with the War we have to expect that to a certain extent, but even so …”

 “If you ask me, this is a funny area”, said Aunt Patty “Oh I know it all looks very cute and beautiful on the surface, like something out of a Constable painting, but I’ve always felt the people round here were lacking in friendliness.  You should have come to Brighton you know.  It’s much different there”.

 “Well when Father died, I wanted to see if I could cut it on my own”, said Sylvia “I was nearly 40, and I felt as unworldly as a child.  If I’d come straight to you, you might well have ended up doing everything for me.  You’re so kind that way.  I wanted to see if I could finally show the world what I was made of I suppose.  Not that the world gives tuppence!”

 “But you’re lonely”, said Aunt Patty “It’s not surprising.  You have no friends in this small village”.

 “And not likely to make any”, said Sylvia “The people at the farm are kind.  They often leave me little gifts of food, but it’s just a neighbourly kindness.  And all I get everywhere are jibes all the time”.

 “People often distrust an independently-minded woman”, said Aunty Patty “Small-minded people do I mean.  They see you as a threat.  We like to think we live in such a sophisticated world these days, but in places like this things don’t change terribly much.  The Victorian outlook is still there, under the surface”.

 “And Miss Crossley, my landlady next door”, Sylvia continued “I thought she was so kind at first, but just lately she seems to think I’m there just to run errands for her, and do little favours.  I’m starting to feel like her unpaid companion.  So much for my great independence!”  

 “Sylvia, I’m worried you might end up staying here”, said Aunt Patty “Do you mind if I smoke?”

 “No, I’ll fetch you an ash-tray”.

 When Sylvia returned with it, Aunty Patty lit a cigarillo.  

 “This is the kind of place that will suck you in”, said Aunt Patty, after taking a luxurious long draw on it “And in 40 years time you’ll still be here, a lonely old lady surrounded by hordes of cats”.

 “Cats”, Sylvia gave a guffaw “Someone else asked me recently if I kept cats.  There’s no danger of that.  They make me sneeze”.

 “A village like this is the natural habitat of the Miss Crossley’s of this world”, said Aunt Patty “Big fish in a small pond.  If you stay here you will end up exactly as you fear, her unpaid companion.  I know women like her.  I’ve had enough of them as guests.  I recognise her sort the moment they appear.  They complain about everything, expect everyone to wait on them, and keep harping back to the good old days when they could rule servants with a sort of feudal terror”.

 “It’s funny, you and she must be about the same age”, said Sylvia “And yet I can’t think of two people more different”.

 “Well I want you to be your own woman”, said Aunt Patty “My generation had to fight for so much, it is up to your generation to continue the fight.  This new war – curse it – may at least enable you to do that.  I don’t believe you were born to fade away in some backwater like this”.

 There was a rumbling sound overhead, like thunder.

 “It’s one of the planes”, said Sylvia “That happens regularly.  I barely notice it any more.  As long as it’s one of ours I don’t mind”.  

 “And that’s another thing”, said Aunt Patty “What will you do when the bombing really starts in earnest.  We all know it is only a matter of time.  You don’t even have a shelter here”.

 “I can use Miss Crossley’s”, said Sylvia “But I’ve got an emergency bag which stays by my bed, and if it gets really bad, I shall sleep down here on the sofa”.

 “I’ve heard rumours”, said Aunt Patty “You hear a lot running a guest-house, in spite of all this Careless Talk Costs Lives nonsense.  When it really begins, it is going to be Hell”.

 Sylvia felt the conversation was all getting a bit much, and she asked her how her journey up had been.

 “Oh it could have been worse”, Aunt Patty smiled “Everything went reasonably smoothly.  The only problem was when I got asked for my ID card at the station”.

 “Oh no!  Why did they ask you?”

 “It’s standard now, and this little soldier was clearly desperate for something to do.  I didn’t mind, except it was a bit awkward … I’d stuffed my ID card in my stocking-top for safekeeping!”

 

There was a good-natured tussle at bed-time.  Sylvia insisted that Aunty Patty had her bed.  Aunt Patty said she wouldn’t dream of turning Sylvia out of her billet.  Sylvia insisted, and said that the spare room was barely more than a broom-cupboard, and no place to put an old lady.

 “Old lady forsooth!” Aunty Patty laughed, but was happy to concede defeat.  She faced a long and tedious cross-country train journey the next day, and needed all the rest she could get.

 Sylvia went into the dark little bedroom at the back of the house.  She went to pull the curtains before putting the light on, and was dismayed to see Jim Jarrod’s light glimmering through the trees in the distance.

 “I don’t believe it, the selfish monster!” she cried aloud.

 “Are you alright, my dear?” Aunt Patty drifted in, wearing a long white nightgown, and with her hair hanging down around her shoulders.

 “Jim Jarrod, that strange little man I was telling you about at dinner”, said Sylvia “He’s left his light showing again”.

 “Well don’t you have ARP wardens around here?”

 “Yes we do, and he has been told”.

 “All I can suggest is you tell them tomorrow”, said Aunty Patty “They’ll probably have seen it anyway.  I don’t think you should confront him yourself, he sounds most odd from what you’ve told me.  Tell them tomorrow, in case he’s up to no good”.

 “You don’t think he could be signalling to the enemy?” said Sylvia.

 “That’s one of the problems with Wartime, everyone’s imaginations run wild”, said Aunt Patty “But certainly he needs keeping an eye on.  Anyone can make a careless mistake, but if he keeps repeatedly doing it, then he needs watching.  Goodnight my dear”.

 She kissed Sylvia on the cheek, and went back to the front bedroom.

 

 To Sylvia’s dismay Aunt Patty had to leave soon after breakfast the next morning.

 “I was hoping you could stay to lunch at least”, said Sylvia.

 “Would love to, my dear, but I really need to get back to the guest-house”, Patty replied “I don’t want to leave Jenny alone there for too long, not with all these wild rumours of Invasion flying around at the moment.  It’s all horribly unsettling”.

 At the front door she turned to kiss Sylvia, and urged her once again to consider moving to Brighton.

 “I mean it Sylvia”, she said “This is the sort of place where you could wake up one morning and find you’ve been here for 40 years, and you’re an old lady wondering where your life has gone.  There is a dark enchantment to rural areas like this, and you do seem to have some funny people around here.  Funny peculiar I mean, not funny ha-ha”.

 “Aren’t there funny peculiar people everywhere?”

 “Yes, but they seem to sort of loiter with an ominous intent here.  I don’t really know what I’m trying to say.  I always did have an over-active imagination, but please do consider coming to us.  You would have such fun in Brighton.  See life.  The War is a terrible thing, but it does at least give us women a chance for more fun”.

 “Ever the suffragette at heart, Aunty Patty”, Sylvia smiled.

 “Naturally, my dear, naturally”.

 

7.

 

The rest of August slid past in a blur of First Aid meetings, bombing alerts, trying to avoid Miss Crossley, and venturing out into the countryside to pick plums and blackberries from the hedgerows.  Sylvia saw nothing of James Jarrod, although occasionally she was aware of an irritating pinprick of light coming from his end of the lane.  

Aunty Patty kept her regaled with frequent, chatty letters about the raucous goings-on in Brighton.  Sylvia often wondered how much Patty was exaggerating the fun they were having, to try and lure her down there.  It wasn’t that Sylvia wasn’t tempted by the offer, but a certain laziness kept her from accepting the invite.  The thought of packing up all her belongings and then travelling down made her feel exhausted.  And she was feeling tired all too much these days.  She didn’t know if it was the heat of the Summer, the constant tension over the War, or her age … or all three.  

 On the occasions when she ventured into the village or into Nonstead, she found speculation was still rife as to when Hitler was likely to land.  One man, in a shop queue, said he’d heard that Hitler had joked in a wireless broadcast, about being here “soon”.   

 At the end of the month the bombing seemed to step up a notch.  That, combined with the darkening evenings, made Sylvia even more apprehensive.  She was now returning from First Aid duty in the dark, and pushing her bicycle along the lane, with the planes droning in the distance, was a nerve-wracking experience.  

 “Why did no one ever marry me?” she asked herself “Sometimes I really wish I wasn’t alone”.

 When she got home she decided to run herself a short bath.  She rarely used the huge, antiquated bath-tub in her cottage.  It took too long to fill, and these days, with the rules about how much bath-water one was allowed to use, it scarcely seemed worth it.  But tonight she felt it might help to calm her nerves.  She had barely got in when the sirens went off.

 “Oh damnit!” Sylvia clambered awkwardly out of the tub, and grabbed a towel.

 “Can’t you wait a moment!” she called out at the invisible enemy “At least have the decency to let me find my clothes!”

 She grabbed a sweater and her pyjama bottoms, and fled downstairs.  She had no air-raid shelter, but she pulled her dining table into the centre of the room, and dived under it onto the bed of cushions she had set up there.  This was a bad raid.  Some of the hits were close enough to shake the little cottage, and Sylvia sat, with her knees hunched up to her chest, praying fervently for it to stop.  

 

 At daybreak, when the horrendous noise had stopped, Sylvia ventured outside.  The sky to the east was lit in a crimson/orange glow, and the air stank of smoke.  It was like the end of the world.  She prowled round the garden in a daze, at one point even pinching her own arm to ascertain that she was still alive.  

 “Are you alright, my dear?” came Miss Crossley’s voice from over the fence.

 Sylvia closed her eyes and counted to five.

 “Yes Miss Crossley, I’m fine”, she replied, hoping her voice didn’t sound like it was shaking.  

 She turned and saw Miss Crossley peering over the top of the fence at her.  

 “I was so worried about you, all on your own”, said Miss Crossley “But we’ve been awfully busy the past few days”.

 “Thank you, but I will be fine”, said Sylvia “I suppose we have to get used to this”.

 “It has been absolutely dreadful in London”, said Miss Crossley “Awful rumours about yesterday afternoon.  Those beastly Germans bombed in broad daylight.  Hundreds killed apparently, thousands injured. It is incomprehensible.  Even the Zeppelin raids we had in the last War were nothing like this.  Be thankful you don’t live in the City anymore”.

 “I’m going to make some tea”, Sylvia mumbled, and bolted back into the house.  She wasn’t in the mood for one of Miss Crossley’s little homilies.  

 

 As soon as she was washed and dressed, Sylvia cycled to the village to use the telephone box.  She wanted to check on Aunt Patty, to make sure she was still in one piece.

 “Oh my darling girl, we are fine here”, came Aunt Patty’s voice over the crackly line “But what about you?  Your area was getting dangerously close to the eye of the storm”.

 Sylvia reassured her that she and the house were still intact.  

 “I’m so glad to hear it”, said Aunt Patty “The stuff I’ve heard about London … oh dear, like something out of one of Mr Wells’s stories.  Absolutely dreadful.  But I have every confidence the people will take it”.

 Sylvia had to bite down a retort along the lines of “do they have any choice?”  Instead she gave Aunt Patty more reassuring noises, and then rang off.  

 She decided to take the back lane home.  The news about London had made her even more angry about James Jarrod’s selfishness.  Along the way she passed some gypsies camping on the verge.  The little bells on the harness of one of the delightful, shaggy horses added a soothing note to a fractious day.  When she reached Keeper’s Cottage she was unable to get any reaction from knocking on the front door.  She went round the side of the house, and found the kitchen door standing ajar.  

 “Hello?  Mr Jarrod?” she called out.  

 There was no reply, but she had no intention of being thwarted so easily.  She ventured into the sunlit pantry, and then through into the kitchen.  The cellar door was open.

 “Mr Jarrod?”

 “Er … um … yes?” came a male voice from below.

 “Mr Jarrod, I must speak to you, it is very important”.

 James Jarrod came up the cellar steps, and emerged, blinking, into the sunlight like a mole.  He seemed nervous and timid, like a schoolboy summoned to the Headmaster’s office.

 “Mr Jarrod, I’ve asked you about this before”, said Sylvia, her anger giving her a courage she didn’t normally have when facing up to a confrontation “But surely even you can see, after the dreadful night we’ve just had, that it is not only selfish but downright dangerous to go showing lights the way you have been”.

 “Do you really think one pinprick of light makes any difference?” he said.

 “Yes I do actually!” Sylvia replied “It will show up very clearly in a rural area like this.  I cannot understand why you can’t appreciate this fact”.

 “If you want to get angry at someone, get angry at this Government”, he said “They should be retaliating at the Germans more than they are”.

 “I’m sure the boys of the RAF are doing all they can”, said Sylvia “They don’t have the advantage the Germans have of only flying over the Channel”.

 “Hmph”, said Jarrod “I wasn’t referring to our brave boys in blue, but the Government.  Don’t you think they should be doing more to kick Germany into touch?  If you ask me, they seem to be sitting back and letting Hitler chuck whatever he damn well likes at us”.

 “Mr Jarrod”, said Sylvia “Right at this moment I neither know nor care what the Government is doing.  It is up to us to protect ourselves, and that involves us all doing what we can to ensure each other’s safety”.

 Finally, this seemed to hit the right spot with the obtuse Mr Jarrod.  He bowed his head in a mild form of capitulation.

 “I see your point, Miss Baxter”, he said “I’m afraid I’m not very good at understanding people, or how we all fit together in this strange thing called Society.  I am a loner, as I’m sure you’ve already worked out, or I wouldn’t be living out here all by myself.  I often don’t see the point of human relationships.  At my most cynical I think people only use each other for what they can, and then dress it up in emotive language like Love and Compassion”.

 “You poor man”, said Sylvia, with genuine concern “I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but you must have had a very lonely life”.

 “Some might see it that way”, said Jarrod “It’s never bothered me unduly, up until recently”.

 “Well I suppose I’m a loner too”, said Sylvia “Although it seems to have been foisted on me, not out of choice”.

 “You like people really?” asked Jarrod.

 “No, not all of the time”, Sylvia smiled “Sometimes I find them quite exasperating, and I do like solitude, a chance to sit by oneself and think.  It recharges the batteries.  But sometimes, particularly after a night like last night, I think it would be nice to have a like-minded soul to share the ordeal with.  But”, she gave a sigh “Perhaps it wouldn’t be like that.  I might spend all my time worrying about them then, or putting up with them moaning about the situation!  Swings and roundabouts”.

 She turned to leave, but Jarrod called after her.

 “Watch out on the 15th”, he said.

 “Why?”

 “There’s a Full Moon that night”, Jarrod replied “I’ve heard that’s the most likely time for him to attempt an Invasion”.

 “I’ve been hearing about rumoured Invasion dates all the Summer long”, said Sylvia “And he’s never shown up yet”.

 “But September may be his last chance”, said Jarrod “They won’t want to risk landing here once the bad weather sets in”.

 “Well”, Sylvia sighed “Whenever he chooses to come, we’ll be waiting for him”.

 

 Sylvia felt she should relate all this to Miss Crossley.  She had no wish to, but a sense of Duty dictated otherwise.

 “You don’t think he could be a Bolshevik do you, my dear?” said Miss Crossley “He seems to be very against the Government”.

 “To be honest, he seems to be very much against most things”, said Sylvia “But I’ve never heard him bang on and on about Marx, or the plight of the working man, as I remember Fabian men doing constantly in my younger days.  Frankly, I doubt Mr Jarrod would notice the plight of the working man if it hit him on the nose!  He seems remarkably unaware of anything that goes on beyond his very immediate vicinity”.

 “Nevertheless you seem to be getting along with him very well”, said Miss Crossley, with a rogue-ish smile.

 Sylvia had to stifle a feeling of nausea at what thoughts could be going through Miss Crossley’s head now.  Perhaps she was envisaging a quiet, respectable Autumn wedding between two middle-aged lost souls.  The idea was beyond human endurance.

 

 A few hours later she received another hand-delivered note from Mr Jarrod.

 

 Keeper’s Cottage

 13th September 1940

 

 My dear Miss Baxter

 

 You would be doing me a great honour if you would accept an invitation to take tea with me here at Keeper’s tomorrow afternoon.  I am aware I haven’t presented a very good image of myself since arriving in this neighbourhood, and it would give me the greatest of pleasure to try and rectify that.  In these troubled times friendship is something to be especially treasured.

 

 Your obedient servant, James Jarrod

 

 Sylvia wasn’t sure if she regarded herself as having a friendship with James Jarrod, but to turn him down would appear petty and churlish.  “What if Keeper’s were to be bombed tomorrow night, and you’d turned down his overture of friendship?” came the nagging little do-gooding voice that had been perched on her shoulder since childhood.  Plus she did think it might be potentially useful to try and find out more about her mysterious new neighbour.  He was still very much an enigma after all these weeks.  

 She just hoped MIss Crossley wouldn’t see her setting off there.  Tongues would really be wagging then.

 

 At 3:30 PM the following day Sylvia set off along the lane.  It was a humid, warm day, but with thick grey cloud overhead.  People were still harvesting in the fields nearby.  Such everyday activities gave the whole afternoon a surreal feel, combined as it was the sultry, overcast weather and the state of the War, which was uppermost in everyone’s minds.

 Mr Jarrod greeted her in his shirtsleeves.  Although he was still wearing a tie, this was by far the most casually dressed she had seen him.  He ushered her into the kitchen, and began to dispense tea and scones in  a surprisingly affable way.

 “If he hands me a scone saying ‘scuse fingers’, like Major Armstrong, the poisoner”, thought Sylvia “I shall probably get up and leave immediately!”

 Fortunately this didn’t happen.

 “I always thought this was such a relaxing room”, said Sylvia, looking around the kitchen.

 “Yes it is, the War is a long way away when one is in here”, said Jarrod, sitting down on the other side of the Brown Betty teapot.

 “I keep hearing terrible news from London”, said Sylvia “You must be so relieved you got away from there”.

 “And what we hear is only the tip of the iceberg, Miss Baxter”.

 “Oh please, call me Sylvia. ‘Miss Baxter’ makes me feel like the village schoolmistress!”

 “I never had a schoolmistress as charming as you”, said Jarrod, somewhat unexpectedly.

 [Oh lor, he isn’t trying to flirt with me is he?]

 “I get the impression you worked in some government department”, said Sylvia, trying to steer the conversation back onto less romantic terms “I understand if you can’t say much”.

 “I was very much a backroom boy”, said Jarrod, putting a tea-strainer over his china cup “Nothing at all important.  Archiving.  But one hears things, and old colleagues occasionally still fill me in on what’s going on.  There are some dreadful stories, but they aren’t released over the airwaves.  Bad for morale don’t you know”.

 “I can imagine”, said Sylvia.

 “Recently I heard of a maternity hospital being bombed”, said Jarrod “Utterly dreadful.  The women couldn’t stop screaming, even when they had been dug out and rescued.  They’d been so badly traumatised.  That thought haunts me.  People are making use of the Underground stations for shelter.  They trust them more than the government-issue shelters.  There are some fears behind the scenes that they may never want to come out again”.

 “It all sounds so horribly gothic”, said Sylvia.  

 “And it will all get worse before it gets better”, said Jarrod “Sometimes I’m glad I won’t be here to see it, although at the same time I would like to know how it turns out.  I hope we win.  We can’t have the Nazi’s running everything …”

 “Mr Jarrod, are you ill?”

 “James, please”, said Jarrod “Yes I only have a few weeks to live.  My dear Sylvia, I thought you knew”.

 “N-no, I didn’t”, said Sylvia, putting down her teaspoon in shock “I thought you might not be in the best of health, but I had no idea it was so serious”.

 “I must apologise, I really thought you knew.  I thought that dreadful Miss Crossley would have delighted in telling you”.

 “She said you probably had to get out of London for health reasons, but she made it sound like a bad dose of nerves!”

 “I was recommended the countryside, so that I could get some peace in my final lap, as it were”, said Jarrod “I don’t regret it.  London is hard enough at the moment if one has one’s health, without being in my condition.  Although we certainly aren’t immune from the horror here”.

 “Is that why you keep forgetting the blackout?” asked Sylvia “I suppose the thought of enemy bombs doesn’t terrify you as much as the rest of us”.

 “No that is genuine forgetfulness”, said Jarrod “The medication I’m on has side-effects.  It can affect my moods – as you’ve probably already noticed – and affect my short-term memory.  Plus, in the evenings, I often doze off, and the dark sort of creeps up on me unawares”.

 “Well I can help there”, said Sylvia “I can come by at dusk and make sure you’re all curtained up, as it were”.

 “Would you do that for me?  How terribly kind of you”.

 “It’s nothing.  Sunset is getting earlier at this time of year, I can do it on my way to my First Aid sessions”.

 After tea had been consumed, James showed her around the cottage.  There wasn’t much to see.  His few possessions seemed to get swallowed up by the house.  Sylvia was fascinated by the cellar, which Jarrod was using as a bomb shelter.  She approved of his camp-bed and wireless set.

 “How on earth are you managing at your little cottage?” he asked.

 “I get under the table”, said Sylvia, bluntly.

 “My dear Miss … Sylvia, you must be terrified”.

 “Well I would rather it wasn’t happening at all, but needs must when the Devil drives”.

 “You can come here anytime you want, although I suppose cycling along the lane during an air-raid would be pretty unnerving!”

 Something about the dark corners of the cellar made Sylvia feel she would rather take her chances under the table at home, and she couldn’t shake the feeling that a cellar could be a death-trap, but James’s kindness was genuine, so she didn’t say anything.  

 “Oh Sylvia”, he said, as he walked her to the front door at the end of her visit “I’m sorry to ask another favour of you, when I know you’re already so busy …”

 “What is it James?” Sylvia smiled.

 “It’s just that …” he was clearly finding this difficult to say “If … if anyone comes to the neighbourhood asking for me, would you be so kind as to let me know”.

 For a moment Sylvia stood gaping at him like a goldfish.

 “My dear”, he said “Are you alright?”

 “Someone did come, a little while back”, said Sylvia “I’m so sorry James, I should have informed you, but what with one thing and another I forgot.  It was a woman”.

 “A woman?” said James.

 “Yes, terribly elegant and smartly-dressed she was”.

 “Did she leave her name?”

 “Jasmine”, said Sylvia “Jasmine Hall”.

 Jarrod looked as if this wasn’t the best news he could have received.

 “Was she here long?” he asked, eventually.

 “A short while”, said Sylvia “I invited her in for some homemade wine, but I don’t think it was a hit.  I got the impression she was much more of a gin-and-tonic kind of a girl.  She made a few barbed comments about our little rural idyll here, and then left again”.

 “Did she give you anything?” said James “Hand anything over to you?”

 “No”, said Sylvia “If she’d wanted me to pass anything to you I would have done so, I promise”.

 “No I didn’t mean that”, said James “But she didn’t give you anything for yourself?”

 Sylvia almost laughed at this notion.

 “I didn’t get the impression that she was the kind of woman who goes around doling out free gifts to complete strangers!” she said.

 “Good”, said Jarrod, with relief “That is good.  Sylvia, if she calls again, you will tell me won’t you?  And if she does turn up on your doorstep again, please, I beseech you, whatever you do, don’t let her in”.

 

9.

 

The next day Sylvia busied herself cleaning out the cupboard under the stairs.  She had heard someone say that this was often the safest place to be, as the stairs usually remained intact in a bombed-out house.  By the time she had finished though she wasn’t sure that the prospect of sealing herself up in this pokey dark crawlspace was such a good idea.  It had the potential to be as much of a death-trap as Mr Jarrod’s cellar.  What if rubble completely blocked the doorway?  Would any rescuers think to look for the cupboard?  Nevertheless she furnished the now-empty hole with a spare sleeping-bag, and some cushions and pillows, to try and make it feel more salubrious.  

 When she had finished she found that Tommy had left a paper-bag stuffed with juicy pears on her doorstep.  She took out a couple for her own use, and decided to give the rest to Mr Jarrod.  It would be a pleasant excuse for a walk in the mellow September sunshine.  When she reached Keeper’s Cottage, she went round to the kitchen door, and found it open.  Mr Jarrod was seated at the table in his shirtsleeves and braces.  In the sunlight Sylvia could see just how ill he was.  He was painfully thin and chalk-white, looking as if he already had a foot-hold in the next world.   Although he looked exhausted, his face lit up when he saw her.

 “My dear Sylvia”, he said “What a lovely surprise.  I thought you might have had enough of my company yesterday”.

 “Not at all”, said Sylvia “Would you like me to make you a cup of tea?”

 He smiled and nodded, but refused to accept the gift of the pears.

 “They are wasted on me”, he said “Now don’t argue, there’s a dear.  You will get much more benefit from them, and if not, give them to the children in the village.  I’m sure they would appreciate them”.

 “You are a very kind man”, said Sylvia.

 “It is very rare that I’ve been called that”, said Jarrod, with a sad smile.

 Whilst they waited for the kettle on the stove to boil, they sat in amicable silence and watched the birds in the garden.  It was a magnificently bucolic scene.  Impossible to imagine that only a few miles away in London, people were cleaning up in the aftermath of another horrific bombing raid.

 “There is something very relaxing about hearing tea being poured out”, said Jarrod, as Sylvia poured the hot liquid through the strainer into his cup.

 “My mother always used to say that”, said Sylvia “She used to like listing her favourite smells and sounds.  Washing flapping on the line in a gentle breeze was another one.  Both the sound and the smell of freshly-aired laundry”.

 “I wish I had met you a long time ago”, said Jarrod “I seem to have lived my life amongst people with brutal souls”.

 “Sometimes, with all the horror in the world”, said Sylvia “It’s all too easy to forget that good people still exist”.

 “I hope you don’t mind me speaking out of turn, my dear”, said Jarrod “But every day I feel as if it could be my last, and that I might not see you again.  Neither of us know how long this awful shambles is going to last, but I do hope you don’t plan to sit it out here for the duration”.

 “You sound like my Aunt Patty”, said Sylvia, blowing on her scalding hot tea “She keeps wanting me to join her in Brighton”.

 “That would be infinitely better”, said Jarrod.

 “Actually I’m thinking of going back to London”, said Sylvia “I might actually be some use there, now I have some basic First Aid training.  I could help out at one of the centres for the people made homeless.  I’m fed up with feeling so utterly useless.  Plus – to be entirely selfish about it for a moment – I want to get away from this village.  The people at the farm are very kind, but the likes of Miss Crossley and some of the other residents can be intolerable.  I feel as if they’ve got me caught in their web.  Aunt Patty’s right.  If I don’t get away soon, I can see me still being here in decades to come.  A dotty old spinster with cats”.  

 “That sounds a good plan”, said Jarrod “One can’t hide from the War, I feel.  I’m not sure, but I think it was Baudelaire who said the best way to cope with horror is to bury oneself in it”.

 “Didn’t he also say ‘the habit of doing one’s duty drives away fear’?” said Sylvia.

 “And his truest comment: ‘the Devil’s finest trick is to persuade you that he does not exist’”, said Jarrod “That one is far truer than many people realise”.

 “Mr Jarrod …” Sylvia began “Sorry, James.  You sometimes come out with these obscure remarks which throw me somewhat.  As if there’s a whole side to you that the world will never see”.

 “I hope it doesn’t.  I have got mixed up with people over the years, the type of people I would never want you to see.  I realise now what a dreadful mistake it all was.  It’s taken this cancer inside me to make me realise the truth.  I have wasted so much time.  Wasted it on things and people that I should never have gone anywhere near”.

 “We all of us make mistakes.  Sometimes one of the hardest things in life is coming to terms with them and moving on”.  

 “Sylvia, do you believe in Black Magic?” asked Jarrod, somewhat suddenly.

 Sylvia nearly burst out laughing, but she could see Jarrod was being deadly serious.

 “Good heavens”, she said “You’ve bowled me a googly, as my father would have said.  I can’t say I’ve ever really given it much thought.  I read The Devil Rides Out a couple of years ago.  Thought it was an entertaining story, nothing more than that”.  

 “Mr Wheatley knows more than he lets on”, said Jarrod “I got mixed up with people like that, several years ago.  I was introduced to someone at a college dinner, who was heavily involved.  It all sounded like  a blast, to be honest.  I must have been feeling jaded, and on the lookout for new kicks.  In the Twenties we seemed to have tried everything.  We were constantly on the lookout for new, and ever more reckless diversions”.

 Sylvia had spent most of the so-called Roaring Twenties either at college, or working as a teaching assistant at an exclusive all-girls school.  Their idea of wild and reckless behaviour was to have a Christmas sherry in the headmistress’s office.   She had been planning to make teaching her career, until her widowed father had been taken ill, and she had been forced to return home to nurse him.  

 “I find it hard to envisage you as a Bright Young Thing, James”, she said.   

 “I soon realised I had got myself mixed up in something that was rather more than a few reckless high-jinks”, Jarrod continued “These people were serious”.

 Sylvia had an instinct that she didn’t really want to know what they had done.

 “But what were they trying to achieve?” she asked.

 “They want to destroy the world”.

 “With respect James, the world seems to be doing a damn fine job of destroying itself at the moment, without their help!”

 “You don’t understand”, said Jarrod “This is their doing!”

 “Oh now really”, said Sylvia “Come come James.  The present situation is the fault of men like Herr Hitler.  You can’t blame it on some louche high-society decadents, however depraved they may have been”.  

 “They helped to bring this situation about.  They want to the world to burn.  They want Evil to run rampant.  They want nothing but destruction.  They are Lords of Misrule.  The rest of us are nothing but cannon fodder to them.  And they have infiltrated on levels of society you can’t imagine.  They have seeped in everywhere.  Politics, royalty, academia, showbusiness.   I would even go so far as to say that Hitler is as much of a pawn to them as we are”.

 “I’m sorry, but this is nonsense …”

 “It isn’t my dear, it really isn’t”, said Jarrod, shaking his head sorrowfully “He is a dark angel.  He has been sent on some dark karmic mission.  He has no choice but to live it out for them.  Evil can have it’s own karmic destiny too”.

 “This is all very hard to take in”.

 “I know.  You are such a good woman.  I would never have contaminated you with this nonsense, as you call it, if I didn’t feel that I must warn you.   That is why I was so insistent that you have no further dealings with Jasmine Hall, if she returns”.

 “Is she one of them?” asked Sylvia.  

 “She isn’t human”, said Jarrod “You must never have any further dealings with her.  That is why I want you to leave the cottage as soon as you can.  Go to Brighton and be with your loved ones, or lose yourself in the City.  They will be drawn to this area, and not because I am here.  There is something about it, some dark legacy that goes back centuries.  It is buried in the very soil here.  It will act as a psychic lure to them.  I didn’t come here with the intention of helping anyone.  By the time I arrived at this cottage I just wanted to die as peacefully as I could.  I didn’t know how to deal with a normal person such as yourself.  I want to help you in any way I can”.  

 

 Sylvia felt angry and depressed when she left the cottage.  The curious thing was she believed Mr Jarrod.  It would be easy to dismiss it all as the ravings of a sick – no doubt drug-fuelled – man, but there was no denying that he seemed painfully sincere in everything he said.  

 “Please come again”, he said, on her departure “As soon as you can”.

 She walked back along the lane in a daze.  An old man, a farm labourer, was sitting on a fence at the side of a field, smoking a pipe.  He grinned at her as she walked past.

 “Being paying a visit to that Mr Jarrod I sees”, he said, with an irritating sauciness.  

 “Oh do go away”, Sylvia muttered under her breath.  

 

 

10.

 

For the next couple of nights the bombing was very bad.  Sylvia gave up on the cupboard-the-stairs idea.  It simply felt too claustrophobic, and she didn’t want to cope with a tiny, confined dark space on top of everything else.  Instead it was under the kitchen table again.  She totted up that she hadn’t had a proper nights sleep in about 10 days.  When she applied this to the nation as a whole, she despaired of the impact on everyone’s health.   

 There were more and more terrible stories of life in the big cities, and yet perversely it only made her even more determined to return to London.  It was the loneliness which was deciding her.  As she lay curled up under the kitchen table, she was made acutely aware of her own solitude, and the very real fear that she could die completely alone.  Even that somebody might not get around to digging her body out for days.  At least in London she could go to public shelters or an Underground station, and be with others.  

 On this particular night the All Clear didn’t sound until 6 AM.  Sylvia had slept fitfully, in random snatches.  When she did she was plagued by vivid and unsettling dreams, which seemed to be giving her snap-shots of life inside Keeper’s Cottage.  Jasmine Hall appeared, doing lewd and grotesque dances, in which she pulled her skirts up over her naked behind, and shook her private parts.  She then went to the meat-safe in the kitchen, and pulled out raw chunks of meat, which she stuffed down her mouth as though they were sweets.  In another part the awful man who had been there once before, was walking up the cellar steps, farting and belching loudly.  He guffawed the whole time.  Sylvia got the impression that this was some kind of infantile behaviour which was actively encouraged amongst this set.  All the while Mr Jarrod lay on a camp-bed in the cellar, seemingly helpless at these people’s mercy.  

 When the All Clear went Sylvia made up her mind to go and see him, no matter how early it was.  She crawled out from under the table, and put on a long, knitted sweater over her pyjamas.  

 To her intense annoyance Miss Crossley was lurking out in her back garden.  She made out that she was inspecting everything for damage, but Sylvia had her doubts.  

 “Are you going somewhere, my dear?” she asked.

 Sylvia had to stifle an urge to tell her to mind her own bloody business.

 “I’m going to see if Mr Jarrod’s alright”, she said, (and you can make of that what you like, you poisonous woman with your village mentality).  

 She marched off before Miss Crossley had a chance to say anything.  “I should have taken that kind of firm line with her from the start”, thought Sylvia “I’ve always been too obliging for my own good”.  

 

 When she reached Keeper’s Cottage she let herself in by the back door.  James had told her he left it unlocked, and she was to let herself in at any time.  She prowled through the darkened downstairs rooms, and found him lying on the sofa in the living-room, wrapped in a blanket.

 “You came”, he said, sounding weaker than ever “Oh I’m so glad you did”.

 Sylvia opened the curtains a smidgeon.  It was now daylight, so she didn’t have to worry about the Blackout regulations.  

 “That was a dreadful night”, she said, kneeling down on the threadbare carpet next to him “I was so worried about you.  I can stay tonight if you’d like”.

 “I won’t see another night”, he said “No please don’t protest, I know the truth.  This is my last dawn.  That’s why I was so anxious you would come.  Please don’t distress yourself my dear, I truly believe I am going to a better place.  Somewhere I will be protected, where They won’t be able to come after me”.

 “I dreamt about Them last night”, said Sylvia “They seemed to have taken over this cottage.  You were helpless …”

 “That often happens”, said Jarrod “They come here in spirit and plague me”.

 “Why though?” said Sylvia “What can They possibly get from it?  They must see you’re a very sick man”.

 “When dealing with the likes of Them we have to forget how we perceive the world”, said James “I’ve told you that before.  Let us not waste valuable time talking about Them.  I want you to promise me that you will take care of yourself.  It’s not always possible, but whenever you can, always try and bring light to the world.  We are living under an evil star at the moment.  How long it will last I do not know.  Sometimes I wonder if this is the way things will be forever from now on”.

 “Surely not?” said Sylvia “Everything has its peaks and troughs.  The tide will turn eventually”.

 “Perhaps”, said James “But the world will never be the same when all this is over.  It will change in ways we cannot even begin to comprehend at the moment.  When faced with a decision in future, always take the one that leads you on the path of Light.  Not what others want you to take.  I’m sorry, I don’t mean to sound pious and lecture …”

 He trailed off.  Clearly the effort of speaking was now too much for him.  Sylvia knew then that the end was very near.  She leaned against the sofa and took him in her arms.  He rested his frail hand in hers.  His was white, almost translucent, like an old man’s.  By contrast Sylvia’s were strong and brown, from where she had been working in the garden.  

 “Oh James”, she cried “I wish we had met so long ago”.  

 

 She closed the curtains again.  It was something people had always done when she was younger.  Whenever there had been a death down the street, the neighbours would always close their curtains as a mark of respect.  She had no inclination to linger in this gloomy, darkened house, and left by the kitchen door.

 When she reached the lane she found the village constable cycling towards her.  He brought his bicycle to a halt when he saw her standing there.  

 “Good morning Miss”, he said “Is everything alright?”

 “Mr Jarrod has passed away”, Sylvia replied “Only a few minutes ago.  I was with him”.

 “I see”, said the Constable “Well that’s sad news, but I suppose not entirely unexpected.  He was very ill.  I knew last time I saw him that he wasn’t long for this world.  Look, why don’t you pop home and make yourself a nice cup of hot, strong tea.  You look as if you need it.  I’ll sort things out here.  You run along now.  We might want a statement from you at some point, but as he was under the doctor, I doubt we will”.  

 “Thank you”, said Sylvia, feeling very numb.  

 The Constable propped his bicycle up against the side of the house, and looked up at the building apprehensively.  

 “I never liked this place”, he said “Ugly old pile.  Always had a bad feel about it.  You get that with some houses.  You never know, Jerry might do us all a favour and bomb it!”  

 

11.

 

Back at her own cottage she caught up on her sleep, and napped for a couple of hours.  When she woke up, she went down to the kitchen, and put the kettle on the hob.  Whilst she waited for it to boil, she fetched her notepad and bottle of ink, and penned a missive to Aunt Patty.  

 

My Darling, dear old Aunty

 

I am taking your advice and leaving this place, but I am going back to London.  When I have got settled somewhere, I will try and visit you, if the trains allow it.  I have no wish to sit out the War in this backwater.  I’ve suddenly seen myself here, alone, at the end of it all, and it’s not a cheering prospect.  Can you imagine several more decades in this place?  People will think I’m a witch!  So you see, your words have had some effect after all.  I may even go today, once I have packed a few of my things together, and if I can get a train up to the Smoke.   I heard a rumour recently that things are so bad there now that there isn’t a single pane of glass left in Oxford Street.  I’m sorry if this letter is a bit rambly, only I feel all sixes-and-sevens, and yet strangely determined at the same time.   Please take care of yourself, and I hope to see you sometime in the next few weeks.

 

Your Loving, Sylvia

 

PS Mr Jarrod, the man at the end of the lane, passed away last night.  I was with him when it happened.  Perhaps that is what has decided me not to waste any more time.  

 

Once the tea was poured, Sylvia took her cup upstairs and carefully selected the clothes she wanted to take with her, folding them neatly and placing them carefully in her battered old suitcase.  She checked her purse for what money she had on her.  Fortunately her Bank was in London, and she could go and see them once she got settled in somewhere, if they hadn’t been bombed as well that is.

 Back downstairs, she put her pot plants in a tray of water outside the back door.  Then she bolted the back door, and carefully put on her hat, standing in front of the mirror at the foot of the stairs   She looked at the short distance between herself and the front door.  Suddenly she knew that if she didn’t walk out at once, then the cottage would claim her, and she would never leave.  She suddenly had an image of a family in the distant future, moving into it after she’d died.  “What did she do with herself here, all these years?” one of them asked.  

 Hastily she collected her handbag, gas-mask and suitcase, and opened the door.

 

 “Going away my dear?”

 It was inevitable that Miss Crossley, as if by magic, should be waiting at the front gate.  

 “Has something happened with your Aunt?” she went on.

 “Aunt Patty is fine”, said Sylvia “I’m leaving.  For good.  I’m returning to London”.

 “Is that wise?” said Miss Crossley “With respect my dear, I don’t think you have any idea what a nightmare life is in the City right now …”

 “It has to be an improvement on here!” Sylvia snapped, handing her the front door key.

 “Well really!” said Miss Crossley “What about the rest of your things?”

 “I’m sure you can find something to do with them!” said Sylvia, and she set off down the lane.    

 

THE END

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An illustrated collection of 35 more of my blog entries, Strange Tales 3: A new collection of mysterious places and odd people is now available for Amazon’sKindle, price £1.99. Also available on other Amazon sites.

 

Cover of Sarah Hapgood's Strange Tales 2

An illustrated collection of 23 more of my blog entries, Strange Tales 2: more mysterious places and odd people is now available for Amazon’sKindle, price £1.15. Also available on other Amazon sites.

 

Cover of Sarah Hapgood's Strange Tales

An illustrated collection of 40 of my blog entries, Strange Tales: an A-Z of mysterious places and odd people is now available for Amazon’sKindle, price £2.32. Also available on other Amazon sites.

Sarah’s fiction on Kindle

Cover of Sarah Hapgood's 
Transylvanian Sky and other stories

A second collection of my short stories, Transylvanian Sky and other stories is now available for Amazon's Kindle, price £1.99. Also available on other Amazon sites.


Cover of Sarah Hapgood's 
B-Road Incident and other stories

A collection of 21 of my short stories, B-Road Incident and other stories is now available for Amazon's Kindle, price £1.15. Also available on other Amazon sites.

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