We Shall Fight On The Beaches...9

We didn’t really have anything much to do and you can only be constantly scared for a while before you were almost de-sensitised to it.


We Shall Fight On The Beaches...

Chapter 9

By Susan Brown


Previously...

STOP!’ Shouted Nan in her most forthright and schoolmarmish voice.

We stopped what we were doing and looked, I think, suitable sheepish.

‘Right you lot have quite a bit surplus energy so first, you can tidy up in here and then go up to your rooms and do the same. Now jump to it!’

We jumped.

And now the story continues…

The next day found all of us girls stuck in the school cleaning up, just wearing our least favourite clothes and head scarves, to save our hair from dust and abuse. Other girls and the younger boys who were still living in the village were there too and it was nice to see that we weren’t the only ones roped in to do the dirty jobs.

None of us liked cleaning but at least it got us out of our homes and doing something different. You would have thought that what with the Germans now occupying the village and us being scared for our lives, there would be enough going on to stop any thoughts of boredom: but we were bored. We didn’t really have anything much to do and you can only be constantly scared for a while before you were almost de-sensitised to it.

I once read somewhere that even soldiers on the front line spent many hours being bored before going into brief, if violent action. Maybe it was something like that for us. I knew that we weren’t soldiers, but as far as we were concerned, it was only a matter of time before we would be involved and doing our bit to defeat the enemy.

The school had been closed for ages and the dust was everywhere, getting into our eyes and down our throats. Nan was there supervising and I thought in passing that if she had been running our armed forces, we would have probably won the war in double quick time!

The school had been shut up for near enough a year and it was surprising how dirty it had actually become.

Evidently, the caretaker had been called up two years before and regretfully he didn't come back home. He had, as far as we knew, been captured and was in a prison of war camp somewhere in France, short of a leg.

There were thousands of prisoners of war in camps dotted around Europe and I wondered if, now the war was effectively over, they would be sent home. Or more likely, I supposed that they would be put to use as workers building roads, railway lines and bridges. I had heard stories about how badly prisoners had been treated and many had suffered ill-treatment whilst being in those camps.

Thinking about it, if the Germans released their prisoners and sent them home, the men might, probably would, join the resistance movement. Something the Germans would, in my opinion, never do.

On the second day of our forced labour, we had an early breakfast and all walked up to the school laughing and giggling, almost forgetting our troubles but we stopped at a new poster put up on the wall of the town hall, which now had a large swastika flag hanging out of an upstairs window, one of several that had appeared overnight. There wasn’t a union flag anywhere in sight and that made me sad.

We all huddled around and read the poster.

From the office of the German High Command (British Zone).

Greetings,

We are pleased to announce that the country is now fully occupied by our forces and that a peaceful transition has taken place. The Military Administration has its headquarters in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Dublin. The area formerly known as Northern Ireland is now considered part of Eire and has been occupied by our forces.

Wherever possible, the local government of each zone will be retained under the jurisdiction of the Wehrmacht. We wish for a harmonious transition of power and expect full co-operation from all sections of the community.

To enable the harmonious transition of power, you are hereby ordered to pay attention to the following:

• Identification papers must be available for inspection at all times.
• Civilians can only travel with relevant documentation.
• There will be a curfew in place from 6 pm to 6 am or from dusk until dawn, whichever is the sooner.
• Rationing will be maintained and will continue until further notice at the current levels.
• Any hoarding will be severely punished. Black marketing will be punishable by immediate execution without trial.
• Any resistance or collaboration against the lawful authority of the Wehrmacht, it’s representatives and designated deputies and will be punishable by immediate execution without trial.
• If any person is aware of incidences of resistance or collaboration, they must report their suspicions to the authorities without delay.If they do not report such incidences of resistance or collaboration, the person or persons will be considered to be in collaboration with the enemy and will be executed without trial.
• Rewards will be given to those civilians who fully co-operate with the authorities in these matters.

There was more of the same, threatening and coercing in equal measures. It all amounted to what we already knew, we were under the Nazi thumb and if we didn’t toe the line, unpleasant things would happen to us. Needless to say, we no longer felt in any way cheerful as we made our way up the hill to the school.

Midway through our third day of cleaning (it seemed like three months), we had a visitor at the school.

Nan was supervising the re-polish of the parquet flooring in the hall, it was a big job and we all involved. To this day I can still remember the strong smell of the floor polish.

The door to the side banged open and there was a man standing there with a grim look on his face.

We all stopped what we were doing and I sighed as my arms were aching with the effort.

‘Mrs Rogers, can I have a word?’

‘What is it Albert, can’t you see that we are busy?’ replied Nan, rather testily.

‘I am the new school secretary,’ he said, rather self-importantly.

I looked at Nan and I could see a strangely guarded expression on her face.

‘Are you indeed. I didn’t know that you had any experience with helping to run a school. After all, you ran the local paper.’

‘I have been asked to do the job by the authorities.’

‘What authorities, the school board no longer sits?’

‘The occupation authorities, of course.’

I hated the smug superior look on the face of the man who said those words. I couldn’t believe that an Englishman would ever cooperate with the Nazi thugs but it looked very much like this one had. One day there would be a reckoning and I hoped that I would be there to see him get his comeuppance.

Glaring at the man, Nan did not say anything for a moment but looked like she might say something that she might regret. I did not want her to get into any trouble. I had just found her and I didn’t want to lose her again.

‘Nan, do you want us to carry on while you and the nice man go and talk.’ I enquired sweetly.

She looked at me, annoyed for a moment and I just winked. She got the message and visibly calmed down.

‘You had better come to my study. Claire, can you make us a cup of tea?’

‘Yes, erm Auntie,’ she replied as she followed them out of the room.

We all looked at each other.

‘That man is not sweet,’ said Ethel.

‘I know that’, I replied, ‘I didn’t want Nan to put her foot in it. She has a bit of a short fuse.’

‘Is he a cloberator?’ asked Heather.

‘You mean collaborator,’ corrected Glad, ‘yes he is, although I would like to clobber him.’

We all laughed, well it was funny.

After a while, Nan came back in without referring to her meeting with Albert, although the look on her face indicated that it didn’t go well.

We stayed and worked until about three in the afternoon. Nan then told us to go back to the cottage while she had a few errands to run. I wondered what those errands were, but held my tongue.

‘Don’t forget to get back before dark.’ I said, feeling rather protective of Nan.

‘I will, don’t worry’ she replied, smiling at me.

As she walked out, Claire turned to me.

‘I thought that your nan was a Miss, not a Mrs?’

‘All the children in the school called the lady teachers Miss, whether they had been married or not. My grandad, Nan’s husband died at the end of the Great War, gassed I think, so obviously, I never knew him.’

~*~

Nan had left a pot of stew on the range and the smell was wafting through the cottage as we walked in the kitchen. It made us all feel very hungry but we had to make do with biscuits and a cup of whatever we liked (tea for me) until Nan got back from her travels.

I took my cup of tea up to the bedroom and sat on my bed. Sometimes I needed a bit of peace and quiet and anyway, the others had decided to play a rather noisy game of snakes and ladders. I never knew you could cheat so much and the resulting shouting and complaints were enough for me to go and seek solitude!

As I sat, I looked over the harbour and out to the sea beyond. It was an ever-changing vista that never failed to interest me. There were many boats in the harbour, mostly fishing, but some private ones too. Nan had a pair of binoculars that she said that she used for bird watching but I was sure she just liked to be nosy and find out what was going on in the village and more important what her neighbours were getting up to.

Out to sea were a few large ships on the horizon and I wondered where they had come from and where they were going to. The Germans pretty well ran the oceans now and there was no opposition to their powerful navy which included the huge fleet of submarines that had wreaked such havoc to our merchant shipping before we lost the war.

Lost the war; it was still something that I found hard to believe. We were supposed to be strong but we weren't strong enough. Every country that they had invaded had fallen under the tyranny of the jackboot and countries that weren't under occupation had left us to our fate.

I could understand why we had been left to it, the Germans were just too strong and economies throughout the world continued to be weak and could not finance any sort of war machine. Germany had taken over countries one by one and bled them dry of resources.

America had its own problems and Canada? Well, I wasn’t sure about them or Australia and New Zealand. We had very little information to go on but I hoped and prayed that one day, we will get the help we needed to get rid of the hated enemy.

Would we ever be Great Britain again? I didn’t know but what I did know was that we had to fight for our country by any means at our disposal. I owed it to my parents and sister to fight on and I would do all I could to be part of the fight against the Nazi tyranny…

‘Carol.’

I jumped at the voice behind me and I turned around.

‘Hello Heather,’ are you alright?’

She looked a bit upset as she came and sat beside me on the bed. I had noticed that she had been crying. I gave her a hug and she started sobbing into my shoulder.

‘Whats wrong honey?’ I asked softly, stroking her hair, which, at last, was getting longer.

She didn’t need to wear a hat now to hide her short back and sides. I gave her my clean hanky and she proceeded to wipe her eyes and then blow her nose rather loudly. She then tried to hand it back to me with a, ‘thank you.’

‘No, that’s alright, keep it, I have plenty.’

‘Thanks, Carol, do I look like a real girl?’ she asked, sniffing and looking at me with those large doe-like eyes that she had.

That was a surprising question and one that I never expected to hear. How to answer that without hurting her feelings?

Looking at her, sat beside me in a skirt and blouse, her hair longer than ever before, tied with a pink ribbon, she looked nothing like a boy.

I had to be honest with her, even though it might hurt her feelings.

‘Well Heather, you have a marvelous disguise and you do look like a girl but that’s good as it means that no one, including the Germans, will ever think that you are a boy and that means that you are safe from being taken away at the moment, although that might change in the future.’

She thought about what I said for a moment.

‘B…but,’

‘But what honey?’

‘I…I don’t want to go back to being a boy anymore.’

‘Pardon?’

She looked at me, tears starting to flow again.

‘I don’t want to be a boy. Since I’ve been Heather, I seem to be happier, no that’s wrong, how can anyone be happy after what we have all been through. I've always been what my mum called a gentle boy. I was never into rough and tumble and I didn’t have many friends. I seemed to get on more with girls than boys and my best friend was the girl next door, Melanie. She left at the start of the war and went to live with her aunt in the country and I have not seen her for ages I don’t even know if she's alive.’

‘Just because you had friends that were girls doesn’t mean that you are a girl though,’ I said playing devil's advocate.

‘I know, but I just seem happier as a girl. I wear pretty clothes, much nicer than my rough boy's things and I can be gentle and kind and be myself. I don’t have to appear big and strong when I’m just not like that. Was it like that for you?’

I thought for a moment.

‘I suppose so, but I always felt like something wasn’t quite right with me, you know a square peg in a round hole. I think that I have always been a girl inside and now I can be one outside too, if you know what I mean.’

‘I think so. I had a long talk with your nan and she was very nice about and said that I should speak to you about it ‘cos you know what it feels like to be like this. Do you think that I’m being silly?’

I looked at her standing there, a now wet hankie in her hand-wringing it nervously. I knew a bit about what she was talking about but I had no idea whether what she was feeling was the same as what I felt, after all, we were all different and no one's journey was the same. I supposed that everyone's experience was different and the last thing that I wanted to do was to put barriers in her way or question what she was feeling.

‘Of course you're not being silly, ‘ I said, ‘only you know how you are truly feeling about who and what you are. Look I can only say how I feel. I have to honest though, you have always said that you are unhappy about dressing as a girl and now, all of a sudden you are happy with it. Are you sure you are not just trying to fit in?’

I hated saying that, but I just wanted to make sure that she wasn’t just reacting to the situation she found herself in.
‘You don’t believe me,’ she said, tears starting to form in her eyes again.

I gathered her up in my arms.

‘Of course I believe you. I'm sorry to question you like this, but the other girls might not believe you, unless you are absolutely certain that this is what you want.’

‘It is what I want, I know I was reluctant to be seen as a girl and at first I thought that I was being silly about my feelings and tried to not give in to them. It wasn’t until I arrived down here that I started to feel a bit more safe that I had time to really think about things and then I realised that I was a girl and not a boy. Everything I had felt before about being more gentle, kind and liking girl things sort of snapped into place and I just knew that I was really a girl. Your nan helped me and told me that I shouldn’t be scared to be who I wanted to be but I had to decide for myself but to talk to you first to see what you said about it.’

'Well honey, I think that if you believe that you are a girl then you are one. I know that I wouldn’t care less what anyone else said, I know who I am and I'm a girl and proud of it.’

‘Me to,’ replied Heather with a big grin on her face.

Hand in hand, we went downstairs and into the sitting room where the other girls were still playing there silly game of snakes and ladders.

Ethel looked up when we came in.

‘Hello, whats up with you two, you both look ever so serious and Heather, have you been crying?’

I noticed that everyone had stopped playing their game and were staring at us.

It had gone very quiet.

Heather hand gripped mine. It was like a vice.

Heather wasn’t going to say anything, I could tell.

‘Right you lot, listen up. Heather has told me that she isn't a boy anymore and she thinks that she hasn’t ever been one really and so she wants to be treated like a real girl and not a pretend one.’

There was silence for a moment and I winced slightly as Heather held my hand even tighter, if that was possible.
‘Well,’ said Claire, ‘Who would ever want to be a stupid boy anyway? Mind you, Heather, we saw you when you were dressed like a boy and let's face it, you didn’t look like a very good one, so welcome to the club!’

There was silence for a moment and then everyone started talking at once. If Heather had any worries about being accepted, she needn't have worried, as we all had a sort of mass hug. For some reason, we were all crying, but that was alright, girls are allowed to cry when they are said and when they are happy.

It seemed like everyone agreed with Claire.

Heather was there to stay!


To be continued.

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