When Jimmy – and Frank and John and all the rest – joined up, it all seemed a big lark. Little Mary – she wasn’t yet five years old – was dead proud her Dad was going off to fight the Germans; she told everyone. I doubt she knew what it meant: I was nearly thirteen and I didn’t, not really.
But the lads all laughed and joked about it, and there was a big party down the social before they went away. Me and my mates were allowed to go and we were made up. Jimmy’s younger brother swiped a beer from one of the grown-ups and we went out the back to share it. We saw Jimmy and Wendy kissing: a long, intimate kiss that made me embarrassed to watch. I remember hoping I’d have that one day.
The Sunday after war was declared we were taken to Lime Street to be evacuated. Our Mam stayed behind but because Mary was so little, Wendy came along. I’d never been anywhere except once to Birkenhead on a church outing. It all seemed like a big adventure, our best clothes tied up in a paper parcel, gas masks in cardboard packages.
I found out after the war how lucky we were. All three of us were taken in by one woman, Mrs Jones, a widow who’d lost her husband and two sons in the first war. We’d left behind a cramped terrace with an outdoor loo and here we were, spoiled with our own bedrooms and an indoor bath and fruit trees growing right in the garden. There were few men left in the village and the few that remained were elderly or infirm. We boys and girls were expected to work on farms after school or to help out in shops or with manual labour. We’d never seen cows and sheep before. The air was fresh and sweet and each day brought a new adventure. My naive little heart thrilled at it all, and I was happy as a lark until the day the telegram came.
Jimmy was killed in a bombing raid. The news was devastating. Wendy was inconsolable; Mary uncomprehending. I wished with all my heart that I could take away their pain: my sister; barely a woman, now a widow. I took Mary out for long walks, away from the hollow of grief her mother had become.
Mrs Jones got Wendy a plum job at the post office and slowly her pretty face regained its natural flush. I do believe that job brought her real fulfilment – a state that women of our class didn’t aspire to in those days. At night, my stomach would contract with fear to hear Wendy’s sobs see through my bedroom wall but by day she seemed fine and as the days passed and the seasons turned, the war – and death – and Liverpool faded into distant memory as my world shrunk to the idyll of village life.
I don’t recall exactly when the US troops from the nearby air base started spending their R&R in the village, but when they did, we all went a little bit crazy. The troops were segregated and it was the black soldiers that came to our village the most. We kids were fascinated by the tall, dark men. We’d trail about after them during the day and cadge sweets and other treats. At night, they’d go dancing and drinking at the Tontine Hotel, so we’d sneak out and peer through the window.
Mrs Jones muttered darkly to Wendy about the dangers of ‘consorting’. She wasn’t alone in shunning the troops: the village divided over it. Some thought it was a betrayal of our boys for the women to flirt with the big brash Americans but Wendy said that after all she’d been through, didn’t she deserve a little fun?.
One soldier took a real shine to her and when he visited they’d walk out together. I coached Mary to call him Uncle Sam and he laughed every time she said it. Mrs Jones didn’t approve but Wendy was defiant: her man was never coming home and she was going to look out for herself. They fought about it, but when the troubles came, Mrs Jones was stalwart.
When Wendy’s breasts swelled and her waist thickened, Wendy was excited: there was no secrecy about it at home. She wrote away to her American beau, and we dreamed of a life far, far away. ‘Take me with you,’ I made her promise.
Out in the village she let baggy clothes keep the secret. As days, then weeks, then months passed with no reply, and no visit, she became more withdrawn, less certain. And in the village, the gossip started.
Jimmy went off to fight the Germans but for our Wendy the enemy was much closer to home. She was bitter about it, especially after she was sacked from her job at the post office with no explanation. I was scared for our future but Mrs Jones calmed me, ‘after the war, when everything goes back normal no one will know, no one will judge.’ We could start afresh, she said.
When Wendy went into labour I fetched the midwife. As soon as the chore was done, I was shoo-ed away with Mary. We climbed the apple tree in the churchyard and watched the house, but there was nothing to see and Mary got restless. We stood on the bridge and played pooh-sticks, then walked along the river past the gypsy camp.
When we were finally allowed home, the house was silent. Wendy was sedated, and there was no baby. Mary cried from fear but Mrs Jones wouldn’t allow any talk about it; ‘it’s done’, was all she said. I asked Wendy what happened when I took her tea in, but she just curled up in a ball and sobbed. I never asked again. Mary found the patch of freshly dug earth in the back garden, the tiny plot filled with secrets.
Life in the village was never again quite the idyll it had once seemed. The visits from the troops lost their sheen: we joined Mrs Jones in shunning them and many of the villagers shunned us. Wendy went back to Liverpool, telling us we were better off with Mrs Jones. We begged her not to go, to take us with her but she shook her head and said she couldn’t. One day Mrs Jones told us she’d died. I only found out after the war that she’d killed herself. She was nineteen.
The village is a tourist attraction now, and Mrs Jones’ house is a tea shop. I went there once and sat in the old front room, looking out at the war memorial and thinking about loss.