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The Evacuee Christmas

Written by Katie King

Excerpt Two

Still, on this pleasant evening in the first week of September, as a played-out and shamefully grubby Connie and Jessie headed back towards their slightly battered blue front door in Jubilee Street, the only thing a stranger might note about them to suggest they were twins was the way their long socks had bunched in similar concertinas above their ankles, and that they had very similar grey smudges on their knees from where they had been kneeling in the dust of the yard in front of where the local dairy stabled the horses that would pull the milk carts with their daily deliveries to streets around Bermondsey and Peckham.

As the twins walked side by side, their shoulders occasionally bumping and two sets of jacks making clinking sounds as they jumbled against each other in the pockets of Jessie’s grey twill shorts as he moved, the children agreed that their tea felt as if it had been a very long time ago. Although the bread and beef dripping yummily sprinkled with salt and pepper that they’d snaffled down before going out to play had been lovely, despite Barbara having seemed quiet and snappy which was very unlike her, by now they were starving again and so they were hoping that they’d be allowed to have seconds when they got in.

They’d only been playing jacks this evening, but Connie had organised a knock-out tournament, and there’d been seven teams of four so it had turned into quite an epic battle. Connie had been the adjudicator and Jessie the scorekeeper, keeping his tally with a pencil-end scrounged from the dairy foreman who’d also then given Jessie a piece of paper to log the teams as Jessie had thanked him so nicely for the inch-long stub of pencil.

The reason the jacks tournament had turned into a hotly contested knock-out affair was that Connie had managed to cadge a bag of end-of-day broken biscuits from a kindly warehouseman at the Peek Freans biscuit factory over on Clements Road – the warehouseman being a regular at The Jolly Shoreman and therefore on nodding acquaintance with Ted and Big Jessie – as a prize for the winning team. These Connie had saved in their brown paper bag so that Jessie could present them to the winning four, who turned out to be the self-named Thames Tinkers German Bashers.

As the game of jacks had gone on, every time Jessie had peeked over at the paper bag containing the biscuits that his sister had squirrelled close to her side (once, he fancied that he even caught a whiff of the enticing sugary aroma), his mouth had watered even though he knew the warehouseman had only given them to Connie as they were going a bit stale and had missed the day’s run of broken biscuits being delivered to local shops so that thrifty headscarved housewives would later be able to buy them at a knock-down rate.

Jessie knew that Connie had wanted him to present the biscuits to the winning team as a way of subtly ingratiating himself with the jacks players, without her having to say anything in support of her brother. She was a wonderful sister to have on one’s side, Jessie knew, and he would have felt even more lost and put upon if he didn’t have her in his corner.

Still, it had only been a couple of days since he had begged Connie to keep quiet on his behalf from now on, following an exceptionally unpleasant few minutes in the boys’ lavatories at school when he had been taunted mercilessly by Larry, one of the biggest pupils in his class, who’d called Jessie a scaredy-cat and then some much worse names for letting his sister speak out for him.

Larry had then started to push Jessie about a bit, although Jessie had quite literally been saved by the bell. It had rung to signal the end of morning playtime and so with a final, well-aimed shove, Larry had screwed his face into a silent snarl to show his reluctance to stop his torment just at that moment and at last he let Jessie go.

Jessie was left panting softly as he watched an indignant Larry leave, his dull-blond cowlick sticking up just as crossly as Larry was stomping away.

To comfort himself Jessie had remembered for a moment the time his father had spoken to him quietly but with a tremendous sense of purpose, looking deep into Jessie’s eyes and speaking to him with the earnest tone that suggested he could almost be a grown-up. ‘Son, you’re a great lad, and I really mean it. Yer mam an’ Connie know that too, and all three o’ us can’t be wrong, now, can we? And so all you’s got to do now is believe it yerself, and those lads’ll then quit their blatherin’. An’ I promise you – I absolutely promise you – that’ll be all it takes.’

Jessie had peered back at his father with a serious expression. He wanted to believe him, really he did. But it was very difficult and he couldn’t ever seem able to work out quite what he should do or say to make things better.

 

Back at number five Jubilee Street following the jacks tournament, the twins wolfed down their second tea, egg-in-a-cup with buttered bread this time, and then Barbara told them to have a strip wash to deal with their filthy knees and grime-embedded knuckles.

Although she made sure their ablutions were up to scratch, Barbara was nowhere near as bright and breezy as she usually was.

Even Connie, not as a matter of course massively observant of what her parents were up to, noticed that their mother seemed preoccupied and not as chatty as usual, and so more than once the twins caught the other’s eye and shrugged or nodded almost imperceptibly at one another.

An hour later Connie’s deep breathing from her bed on the other side of the small bedroom the twins shared let Jessie know that his sister had fallen asleep, and Jessie tried to allow his tense muscles to relax enough so that he could sleep too, but the scary and dark feeling that was currently softly snarling deep down beneath his ribcage wouldn’t quite be quelled.

He had this feeling a lot of the time, and sometimes it was so bad that he wouldn’t be able to eat his breakfast or his dinner.

However, this particular bedtime Jessie wasn’t quite sure why he felt so strongly like this, as actually he’d had a good day, with none of the lads cornering him or seeming to notice him much (which was fine with Jessie), and the game of jacks ended up being quite fun as he’d been able to make the odd pun that had made everyone laugh when he had come to read out the team names.

As he tried willing himself to sleep – counting sheep never having worked for him – Jessie could hear Ted and Barbara talking downstairs in low voices, and they sounded unusually serious even though Jessie could only hear the hum of their conversation rather than what they were actually saying.

Try as he might, Jessie couldn’t pick out any mention of his own name, and so he guessed that for once his parents weren’t talking about him and how useless he had turned out to be at standing up for himself. He supposed that this was all to the good, and after what seemed like an age he was able to let go of his usual worries so that at long last he could drift off.

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