A Home From Home
Something suspicious was going on, and the police had to be told!
The Story So Far PHYLLY GREENWOOD is a land girl at Catchett’s Farm in Norfolk during WWII, with her friend GRACIE.
The farm belongs to JACOB and FLORRIE BRAY, who live with their widowed daughter BEA and their son NED as well as the land girls.
An evacuee, ten-yearold JIMMY HOPWOOD, has arrived from London, where he lives with his aunt MIN. Two Italian POWS work on the farm, too – BENEDICT and ROBERTO.
Gracie receives a telegram telling her that her husband RICHARD, a navigator in the Air Force, is now a POW, too, after initially being reported missing.
American serviceman EDWIN is the son of Bea’s best friend ANNIE, who married and moved to Canada years before. Edwin and Phylly admit they have feelings for each other, but agree to wait until the war is over before deciding their future.
Jimmy has noticed that the guard who brings the POWS to the farm every day is a nasty piece of work, and vows to protect the Italians, whom he considers his friends . . .
JIMMY watched as the Army truck drove into the farmyard and swung round in a wide arc before coming to a halt. From his look-out post under the eaves and tucked out of sight behind his bedroom curtains, Jimmy could see everything that went on. If something happened to the POWS he’d witness it for himself.
The passenger door of the cab flew open and the mean guard jumped out and hurried round to the back of the truck, banging hard on the side as he went.
“Let’s be havin’ you!” he bellowed.
From his lofty viewpoint, Jimmy could see Benedict and Roberto standing at the end of the truck, waiting for the guard to drop the tail-gate to let them out.
They weren’t going to give the mean guard the slightest reason to hurt them again after he’d yanked Roberto out of the truck two weeks ago, badly hurting the young POW’S ankle when he hadn’t been quick enough out of the truck to suit him.
Jimmy had been watching the Italians arrive and leave every day since, just in case anything else happened. It hadn’t. Not yet.
The guard dropped the tail-gate and the moment the POWS’ boots hit the ground, he raised it again,
secured it in place, then ran back and climbed in the cab, slamming the door with a loud thud as the driver put the lorry into gear and drove away too fast, leaving behind a cloud of exhaust fumes.
They were in a hurry again, Jimmy thought. Where were they going?
Benedict and Roberto were the last POWS to be dropped off, so it wasn’t because they needed to get to another farm.
Perhaps he shouldn’t worry about it. Benedict and Roberto were unharmed, and that was the important thing.
Now they’d arrived at Catchett’s, Jimmy could rest easy. They’d be safe until it was time for them to be collected later.
In the meantime, the rest of Jimmy’s day was sadly accounted for – at school. That had started last week and was the part of his life he didn’t like, but which he had to tolerate.
His new village school was different from his London school, as it only had two classes, but there were still spellings to learn and long division sums to do.
“Jimmy?” Bea called up the stairs. “You need to get going or you’ll be late for school.”
Jimmy sighed. “Coming.”
Reaching up on tiptoe, Jimmy plucked the large, ripe blackberry dangling temptingly at the centre of a cluster, most of which were still red and hadn’t yet ripened.
Popping it into his mouth, he chewed slowly, releasing the mellow, fruity taste he’d come to love.
He’d never tried blackberries before he’d come to live at Catchett’s Farm, but since Bea had introduced him to them on one of her blackberrying expeditions, he’d made up for it by eating them whenever he could. This morning they were a distraction as he dawdled on his way to school.
As he reached for another, being careful not to disturb a spider sitting in the middle of its intricate web, Jimmy heard a vehicle coming towards him along the narrow lane.
There wasn’t much room to pass, so he slipped into a nearby gateway to wait until it had gone by.
He nearly choked on the blackberry when the vehicle rounded the corner and he saw who it was – the same Army truck that had come to the farm earlier, with the mean guard and driver on board.
They flashed by too quickly for them to have seen him, and Jimmy felt relieved. He didn’t want to meet them away from the safety of the farm.
But where had they been, he wondered. They hadn’t come from the POW camp on the other side of the nearest town, and they hadn’t been delivering any other POWS, as Benedict and Roberto were the last to be dropped off.
Stepping back on to the road, Jimmy noticed the truck had left faint tyre prints on the grey surface.
He crouched to examine them, prodding them to find they were slightly wet. Strange, because it hadn’t been raining and there were no puddles on the road.
He stood up and, like a hound on the scent, started to follow the prints back in the direction the truck had come from.
They led him back down the road a short way until they swung sharply to the left, off the road and straight into a large puddle spanning a dirt track.
Skirting around the edge of the puddle, taking care to avoid some tall nettles, Jimmy saw tell-tale splash marks on the dry soil on the other side and tyre marks leading down the track and away from the road.
He stared down the track trying to puzzle out why they’d gone down there – it led to a wood. An uneasy feeling prickled along Jimmy’s neck. There was something odd going on and he had to find out.
He started to run along the track, then stopped when his conscience prodded him. What was he going to do about school?
By now the teacher had probably come out and lined everyone up to go in.
Even if he went straight there he’d be late. And he desperately wanted to see if he could find out why the guards had gone up the track.
Jimmy wavered for a few seconds then ran, but not in the direction of the school. He’d face any punishment later, but investigating this was more important than practising long division sums.
Reaching the end of the track beside the wood, Jimmy saw tyre marks and crushed vegetation where the truck had turned.
Crouching low, he scouted around for clues and found footprints in dry soil – large ones with the heavy tread pattern of Army boots.
Feeling like a detective, Jimmy followed the prints into the wood, sometimes losing the trail and having to search around until he picked it up again.
It led him to an old gamekeeper’s hut tucked away out of sight of the track.
What was going on? With his heart hammering hard, Jimmy tried the door but it was locked. He couldn’t look inside as there were no windows.
Skirting around the outside, he searched for a hole or crack to spy through, but with no luck. He was stumped.
Jimmy kicked hard at a piece of fallen wood, sending it bouncing away until it disappeared in the jungle of bracken. He was sure those guards were up to something. Why else would they come here? He needed help.
Should he go to the village constable? No, there was only one person he could ask for help. Phylly. She’d know what to do.
“I can’t get the hang of it,” Gracie said as she plucked another plum and added it to her basket. “The heels always end up with more stitches than I started with.”
“It’s the first sock you’ve ever knitted, Gracie, so don’t be hard on yourself.”
Phylly’s voice came from behind a mosaic of green leaves and ripe plums on the other side of the tree, where she, like Gracie, was up a ladder harvesting the fruit before they lost too many to hungry wasps.
“But I want Richard’s socks to be perfect,” Gracie said. “Bea’s been so patient teaching me how to knit, I feel awful having to ask her to keep showing me. I can do the straight bits, but the heel . . .”
“Perhaps Bea should do the heels for you this time?”
“Maybe, but I’d have to tell Richard I didn’t quite knit all of the socks.” Phylly laughed. “Gracie, he’ll be amazed that you’ve knitted anything at all!”
“I know, but needs must. I read in the magazine that the Red Cross sent me about how important it is to support your POW husband. I need to encourage him and be uplifting.”
Phylly smiled. “Richard will be uplifted at the thought of you knitting,” she replied. “I’d love to see his face when he opens the parcel and sees them.”
“Very funny.” Gracie parted the branches and threw a plum at Phylly, hitting her on the shoulder. “That’s for your cheek.”
“Hey!” Phylly laughed and quickly responded with her own missile. “Seriously, Gracie, it’ll mean a lot to him.”
“I hope so. He’s going to need socks for the winter, Austria’s colder than here.”
Since news of where Richard was imprisoned had come through, Gracie had been putting together a parcel to send to him through the Red Cross.
She’d carefully studied the list of allowed items and had spent hours
working out what to send him, what would be most use to him and how much she could fit in within the weight limit.
She knew how much parcels and letters meant to POWS. Benedict and Roberto often talked to her about the letters they’d had from their families.
Gracie sighed. Parcels were all very well, but what she really wanted was to see Richard.
She was truly grateful that he was alive, because she hadn’t forgotten those awful weeks when she’d believed he was dead.
So until they could be together again she must be content with reaching out to Richard through parcels and letters.
Gracie put her hand against her dungarees pocket where she kept his latest letter. Keeping it close made her feel as if part of him was with her.
Gracie reached for another plum.
“I think you’re right about Bea doing the heels, Phylly. It’s more important to get the parcel sent off than for me to master knitting heels –”
“Phylly!” a breathless voice called from below.
Gracie looked down and saw an anxious-looking Jimmy peering up at her.
“Jimmy! Shouldn’t you be at school?” Gracie quickly clambered down the ladder, taking care not to tip over her basket of plums. “Are you all right?” Phylly joined her. “What’s going on, Jimmy? Are you hurt?”
He shook his head. “I’m all right, but I need help.”
When she’d joined the Land Army, Phylly never imagined she’d be doing anything like this.
She was running cross country, with a hammer and pliers, ready to do a bit of breaking and entering.
She was sure it wasn’t something the Land Army organisers would approve of, but she couldn’t ignore what Jimmy had seen.
Her instinct told her that something odd was going on. She’d seen enough of the mean guard to know he was a bad sort and likely to be up to no good, but what sort of no good she had no idea.
Gracie had wanted to come, too, but Phylly had persuaded her to carry on working at the farm, because this might turn out to be a wild goose chase.
“What will we do if we find something?” Jimmy asked, running beside her. “It depends what we find.” “What if it’s something bad?”
Phylly grabbed Jimmy’s arm, bringing him to a halt beside her.
“We don’t know what we’re getting into, but if it’s something bad, then we must go to the police. We can’t deal with it ourselves. You need to understand that. Right, Jimmy?” He nodded.
“That mean guard isn’t the sort to mess around with.” Phylly bit her bottom lip. “Let’s hope he doesn’t come back while we’re there.”
Jimmy’s face turned pale. “You don’t think he will, do you?”
“I don’t know. We need to be careful and not take risks.”
Jimmy nodded. “We’ll be able to see from quite a distance if they’ve come back in the truck.”
“Good.” Phylly smiled at Jimmy. “Come on, let’s investigate.”
Phylly’s insides felt like they were squirming around inside her as they approached the old gamekeeper’s shed.
She wasn’t used to doing this sort of thing and part of her was frightened of what they might find.
Her main worry was that the guards would be there, so she’d been relieved to see no sign of the truck, and once they’d entered the wood, everywhere was quiet except for the rustlings of small animals and the sound of birds in the trees overhead.
“Are you going to break open the door?” Jimmy whispered.
“We can’t do that as they’d know someone had been here. We’ll look for loose boards to prise open far enough to peep inside. You look on that side and I’ll look on this.”
Phylly wanted to get this over quickly.
Feeling around the boards with her fingers, they all seemed tight and secure. What they’d do if they couldn’t find one, Phylly wasn’t sure. She’d almost searched all her side with no luck, when Jimmy called out.
“Found one!” “Shhh!” Phylly rushed round to find Jimmy with his fingers wedged in between two boards, which he was wobbling to loosen even more. “Keep the noise down.”
“Sorry,” Jimmy whispered. “Look, this board’s loose. If you move it down further we can look in.”
Phylly put the claw end of the hammer between the boards.
“A bit more,” Jimmy said. Phylly pressed harder and there was a sharp crack as the two boards prised apart.
“Quick, look inside,” Phylly said.
Jimmy bent down and peered inside.
“I can’t see much. There’s a green thing blocking the way.”
“Let me see. Hold the hammer for me.”
Jimmy took over holding the hammer while Phylly peered in.
“It looks like a metal container.” She grabbed a nearby stick and poked it through the hole, tapping it against the container, where it made a tell-tale sound. “It’s definitely metal, and full of something by the sound of it.”
Phylly paused, her mind rushing ahead as an idea of what might be inside the metal container formed in her mind.
“Pull the board down a bit more for me, Jimmy.”
With the board pulled down as far as it would go, Phylly could see four metal containers lined up against the side of the shed, and there could be others further in. She knew exactly where she’d seen some like them before.
“Put the board back, Jimmy. We need to go to the police.”
“Why? What’s in there?” “I think they’re cans full of petrol.”
“Why would the guards have them in here?”
“Petrol’s rationed, so they could be selling it on the black market,” Phylly said. “If it is what they’re doing, then where did the petrol come from?”
“Do you think they stole it?”
Phylly shrugged. “Possibly.” She put her arm around Jimmy’s shoulders. “We can’t deal with this, Jimmy. It’s too serious.”
“So you’re telling me there are cans of petrol in an old gamekeeper’s hut?” the village constable asked, looking at Phylly and Jimmy. “This isn’t another spy story, is it?”
“Of course not,” Phylly said. “They sound like they’re full, too, and don’t you think it’s rather suspicious that they’re in a hut in the middle of a wood, and visited by guards who wouldn’t normally be there?”
“Indeed, but I need to have a look myself before I take this any further, because if it is what you think it is, then I’m going to need help.”
“We can help you,” Jimmy said.
“The best thing you can do is show me what you’ve found. If you’re right, it’s going to be too dangerous for you to be involved. It’ll be a job for the police and the Home Guard.”
“You mean Ned and Jacob?” Jimmy asked.
“Yes,” the constable said, putting on his helmet. “Lead the way.”
“Phylly! Jimmy! Thank goodness you’re back. I’ve been so worried.” Gracie clambered down the ladder. “Are you all right? What happened?”
She stopped at the sight of the constable behind them, who was puffing after their cross-country march back to the farm.
“No time to explain
now,” the constable said. “I need to speak to Ned and Jacob.”
“Oh, they’ll be back at the house for their dinner,” Gracie replied. “I should be there, but I couldn’t go until Phylly came back.”
“She’s here now, so lead the way,” the constable said.
When they all walked into the kitchen a few minutes later, the sight of Jimmy made Bea drop the spoon she was using to serve up the stew.
“Jimmy!” She rushed over to him, her eyes checking him over to see if he was hurt. “Why aren’t you at school?”
“Jimmy’s been a clever lad and might have found some wrongdoings,” the constable explained. “Ned, Jacob, I need the Home Guard’s help. If we can talk in private . . .”
Ned stood up. “We’ll go in the front parlour.”
“What’s it about?” Florrie said.
“No time to explain now, Mrs Bray, we need to mobilise the platoon. There will be plenty of time to explain later.”
Jimmy stabbed his spoon into his porridge the next morning, trying to summon up an appetite but failing miserably.
Ned and Jacob had been out all night and hadn’t come home yet and he was worried about them.
“I’ll have to get word to my sister to tell her I can’t come today after all,” Florrie said to Bea as they both sat at the end of the kitchen table nursing cups of tea in their hands.
“She’ll be disappointed,” Bea said.
“I know, but I can’t go off gallivanting when I don’t know what’s happened and if Jacob and Ned are safe.” Florrie sighed. “We don’t even know where they are or what they’re doing.”
Jimmy wished he could tell her where they’d gone, but he couldn’t tell her anything. He’d promised the constable he wouldn’t, and Phylly and Gracie had done the same.
“Do you want some more honey on your porridge?” Bea asked. “Might help it go down a bit easier.” Jimmy shook his head. “No, thank you. I’m not really hungry.”
“Eat it up anyway,” Florrie said. “Otherwise you’ll be hungry all morning and won’t be able to concentrate at school.”
“I can’t go to school.” Tears smarted in Jimmy’s eyes. “Not until I know what’s happened.”
Bea put a hand on his shoulder.
“You didn’t go yesterday, Jimmy, so you must go today. Aunt Min wouldn’t want you to miss out on your education.”
“I won’t be able to concentrate.”
“It’ll help keep your mind off it,” Bea said. “I need to go to the shop so I’ll walk down to the school with you and keep you company on the way.”
“Best to keep busy, Jimmy,” Florrie said, “So eat up.”
Jimmy knew when he was beaten, so he scooped up a spoonful of honeysweetened porridge and popped it into his mouth.
Jimmy didn’t feel like picking blackberries this morning. Walking to school beside Bea, he held on to her hand, her warm fingers giving him reassurance.
“Do you think they’ll be back by the time I get home from school?” Jimmy asked.
“I’ve no idea. You know more about what might be happening than I do.” Jimmy sighed.
“I hate not knowing what’s going on.”
“Try not to worry.” Bea squeezed his hand. “Ned and my father know what they’re doing. The Home Guard are trained to deal with all sorts of incidents.”
Even mean Army guards armed with rifles defending their hidden petrol booty?
Jimmy shuddered at the thought of anything bad happening to Jacob or Ned.
They had both been so welcoming and kind to him since he’d come to live there, and he thought a lot of them. He had to try to be patient and wait for news, but it was hard.
For the rest of the walk into the village, Bea kept up a constant chatter, trying to take his mind off their worries.
Jimmy appreciated what she was doing, but there was only one thing on his mind and it wasn’t going to go anywhere until he had some answers.
He was so deep in thought that he didn’t notice what was going on at first.
As they neared the crossroads leading into the village, he didn’t realise who was standing there until Bea started running, and with his hand still clasped in hers, he was yanked along with her.
The movement brought him to the here and now and he sped up when he saw who they were running to.
Ned and Jacob were standing talking to the constable. They were safe.
“Dad! Ned!” Bea said, breathlessly from their quick sprint. “Are you all right?”
“We’re fine, my woman,” Jacob said, smiling at her. “A good breakfast and a nap and we’ll be as right at rain.”
“What happened?” Jimmy looked them up and down, searching for any clues, but they looked normal apart from a bit dirty and tired. “Did the guards come back?”
“They did,” the constable said. “And we were waiting for them. The Home Guard platoon had the area under surveillance and we caught them red handed.”
“So it was petrol in the cans?” Jimmy asked.
“What’s petrol got to do with it?” Bea asked.
The constable explained to her about Jimmy’s discovery in the hut.
“Phylly was right – they were cans full of petrol. The guards had been stealing Army petrol and had set up a filtering system in the shed to take the red dye out.
“They were pouring it through a loaf of bread, would you believe? But it worked and took the dye out enough for them to sell the petrol on the black market.”
“Did you arrest them?” Jimmy asked.
“Of course. They won’t be stealing anything again for a long time,” the constable said.
“Pair of fools,” Ned said. “They were having an easy war taking POWS around, and should have been happy with that compared with what a lot of soldiers are having to do, but they got greedy and wanted to make some money.”
“They won’t be making any more where they’re going,” the constable said. He looked at Jimmy. “You did well, son. It had been going on for a while and no-one knew about it until you found it. Well done.
“Thank you, Ned and Jacob, for your help, I couldn’t have done it without you and the platoon. Right I’m off for my breakfast.”
He smiled at them and headed off in the direction of the police house.
“What happened? How did you catch them?” Jimmy asked.
“You can find out about that later,” Bea told him. “You’ve got to go to school, and Ned and Dad need their breakfasts. Mum’s waiting for you and no doubt she’ll cook you up a feast,” she said to the men.
“I thought she was going to see her sister today,” Jacob said. “Catching the ten o’clock bus.”
“She’s cancelled it. She said she wasn’t going anywhere till she knew you were safe,” Bea replied.
“We soon will be, so there’s still time for her to go. Florrie’s been looking forward to seeing her sister for weeks, so she mustn’t let this spoil it,” Jacob said. “Come on, Ned.”
“I won’t be long,” Bea said. “I’m going to go and explain why Jimmy wasn’t at school yesterday and then go to the shop.”
She put her arm around Jimmy’s shoulders and started to steer him in the direction of the school.
“I’ll see you back at the farm in a while.”
When Jimmy looked
back over his shoulder, he saw that Ned and Jacob were hurrying off in the direction of Catchett’s Farm.
He was desperate to know what had happened. He had so many questions to ask them, but it would have to wait.
“That was tasty. Thank you, Phylly,” Jacob said, putting his knife and fork down on his empty plate, and leaning back in his chair. “Just the thing after being out all night.”
“I’m glad it was edible.” Phylly laughed, drying a dish from the drainer. “Florrie’s such a good cook and I didn’t want to let her down.”
“You did a fine job.” Phylly had stepped in to cook breakfast for Jacob and Ned so that Florrie could get ready and go to see her sister.
Florrie had taken some persuading, but had agreed to go after she’d satisfied herself that her husband and son were safe and unharmed, and just in need of some food and a nap.
By the time Florrie had left to catch her bus, both men were tucking into a plateful of eggs, bacon and tomatoes, with bread and butter and cups of tea.
“What time did the guards come back?” Phylly asked, glad that she could finally start asking the questions that were buzzing around her mind.
Jacob and Ned had explained about the guards stealing Army petrol before Florrie left, but hadn’t told them all the details.
Phylly didn’t want to pester them with questions while they ate, so she’d had to wait patiently until they’d finished before she could satisfy her curiosity.
“It was the early hours of the morning,” Ned said. “Feels a long longer when you’re waiting, though. The platoon had the whole area staked out, watching the track, in the wood and surrounding the gamekeeper’s hut.”
“Were they filtering the petrol?”
“We caught them red handed,” Jacob said. “They had no idea we were there.”
“Why did they do it?” Phylly asked.
“They got greedy.” Jacob shook his head. “They should have been happy with the job they had. There’s plenty of soldiers who would happily swap their jobs for looking after POWS.”
“It’s horrible that they were making money out of the war, when most people are working hard to get us through this,” Phylly said. “I never did like that guard.”
“It’s a good job Jimmy spotted they were up to something,” Ned went on. “The police had no idea what was going on.”
“I think Benedict and Roberto might have known something. They hinted at it but were too frightened to say anything,” Phylly said. “They’re safe from the guard now, so they might tell me.”
“They’ll be all right now with a new guard and driver,” Jacob assured her.
“I’d better get back to the orchard,” Phylly said, stacking the last clean bowl on to the others she’d just dried. “Or the wasps will get more plums than we will.”
“We’ll be out to help later,” Ned said, stifling a yawn. “The state we’re in we’re more likely to fall asleep on the ladder, so we’d better have a nap.”
Before any of them could move, the back door burst open and Bea rushed in, her face milk white and her eyes brimming with tears.
“Bea, what’s the matter?” Phylly pulled out a chair from the table and ushered her to sit down.
“I met the postman in the village.” Bea held an envelope in her hand. “He had a letter for me. It’s from . . .” She stopped, her face crumpling.
Phylly fished her hankie out of her dungarees pocket and gave it to Bea, then put her arms around the older woman’s shaking shoulders.
Bea dabbed at her eyes, fighting hard to try to calm herself. Biting her bottom lip, she took a deep breath and spoke in a hoarse voice.
“It’s Aunt Min. She’s dead.” To be continued.