SERIAL A Home From Home by Rosie Hendry
Despite the bad news, Phylly and Benedict still had work to do . . .
The Story So Far
Land girl PHYLLY GREENWOOD works 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.
JIMMY HOPWOOD, a ten-year-old evacuee, is at the farm while AUNT MIN, his only relative, stays in London. Two Italian POWS work on the farm, too – BENEDICT and ROBERTO.
American serviceman EDWIN is the son of Bea’s best friend ANNIE, who moved to Canada years before. Edwin and Phylly admit their feelings for each other, but agree to wait until the war is over before deciding their future.
Jimmy notices that the guard who brings the POWS to the farm is a nasty piece of work, and vows to find out what he’s up to. He and Phylly discover he’s stealing Army petrol and inform the authorities. The Home Guard, including Ned and Jacob, catch him redhanded.
Later that day, Bea receives a letter telling her Aunt Min is dead . . ..
PHYLLY measured out three spoons of sugar into a cup of tea and gave it a stir before putting it down in front of Bea. “Drink up. It’ll help with the shock.”
She watched as Bea took several sips, her features softening as the warm, sweet tea took effect.
Phylly was desperate to ask Bea the question that was burning on her lips, and from the look on Ned’s and Jacob’s faces, they were anxious to know what had happened to Aunt Min, too.
It was Ned who spoke first.
“Was it one of them doodlebugs?”
Bea put her cup down, shaking her head.
“No, not that. Thank goodness. The letter’s from her neighbour. She says that Aunt Min died in her sleep from natural causes, according to the doctor.”
“But she seemed so well and strong when she was here.” Phylly slumped down on to a chair, blinking back tears. “If only she’d stayed and not gone back . . .”
“It might not have made any difference,” Bea said.
“The fresh air and better food might have helped,” Phylly began.
Bea touched Phylly’s arm. “I know it’s hard to take in that she’s gone, but . . .” Her voice cracked and she
paused to compose herself.
“Aunt Min was where she wanted to be. She loved London and it wasn’t right for her to stay here.”
“What about Jimmy?” Ned stood up and started pacing back and forth. “What will happen to him?”
“Poor lad’s going to be heartbroken,” Jacob said. “He didn’t want her to go back because he was scared she’d be hurt.”
Ned stopped pacing and sighed.
“Aunt Min was all the family Jimmy had left, and now she’s gone. Will they take him away and put him in an orphanage?”
Bea slammed the palm of her hand down hard on the table, making the tea slosh about in her cup.
“Not while I’m here to stop them!” Two pink spots appeared on her pale cheeks. “He’s under our care here as an evacuee, so by my reckoning that means he should stay here at least for the duration.”
“And afterwards?” Ned asked. “What then?” Bea pursed her lips. “We shall see, but I won’t let him go into an orphanage without a fight. Not when he could have a family and home here with us for as long as he wants.”
“Should we send word to Florrie?” Jacob asked. “She was fond of Aunt Min and wanted her to stay here.”
“No.” Bea shook her head. “Leave her to enjoy herself while she can. She’ll find out soon enough, and there’s nothing she can do to change it. We shouldn’t spoil her time with her sister.”
“When are we going to tell Jimmy?” Phylly asked. “Should we go and fetch him home from school?”
“Aunt Min wouldn’t have wanted him to miss out on any schooling. We’ll tell him when he comes home this afternoon. But it’s not going to be easy. The poor lad’s already lost both his parents”
Phylly felt emotionally shaken as she walked down to the orchard ready to start work. She’d liked Aunt Min very much and been impressed by how close she and Jimmy were. Their relationship had been rock solid with much love and respect on both sides.
It had shown her that not all families were like hers; not every aunt was as cold and harsh as hers had been when she’d taken in Phylly and her twin brother, John, after their mother died.
At least she and John had had each other, but Jimmy had no-one. He was quite alone in the world.
Phylly sniffed and brushed away tears with the back of her hand.
He might not have any relatives alive any more, but Jimmy had her and everyone else at Catchett’s Farm to look out for him.
They all cared and would carry on looking after him together for as long as they could. However long that might prove to be.
The cheerful sound of singing greeted Phylly as she walked into the orchard. She could hear Gracie’s strong voice as she picked plums with the POWS.
The music gladdened Phylly’s heart and gave her strength for what she now had to do.
“Is very sad,” Benedict said after Phylly had broken the news to her friends. “She good lady, very kind to Jimmy.”
Phylly nodded and squeezed Benedict’s arm.
“She was indeed, and she was so pleased that Jimmy’s settled and happy here.”
“He won’t be when he finds out about Aunt Min,” Gracie said. “We must all do our best to help him.”
“We will,” Phylly agreed. “He didn’t want to go to school this morning because Jacob and Ned hadn’t come back. He was desperate to find out what happened last night.”
“Have they told you what happened?” Gracie asked. “I didn’t think Ned looked like he wanted to answer questions when he came down here earlier, so I didn’t ask, even though I wanted to.”
Phylly smiled at her friend, who had shown great restraint when Ned had rushed into the orchard earlier that morning, asking if one of them would come into the kitchen and take over from Florrie for a while so that she could go on her planned visit.
“They did once they’d got breakfast inside them.”
“Well?” Gracie urged. “Spill the beans, then.”
They all listened avidly as Phylly filled them in on the guards’ illegal activities and Ned and Jacob’s night-time vigil.
“Jimmy is clever to find out what they do,” Benedict said after he’d translated all that Phylly had told them for Roberto. “Is good they catched now.”
“Did you know what the guards were doing?” Gracie asked.
Benedict shrugged his shoulders.
“Some. We see them take petrol and creep out in dark. We no say about it because we scared.”
“They’d probably have hurt you if you’d spoken out,” Phylly said. “It was best someone else found out about it.”
“So how were the new driver and guard this morning?”
“Good,” Benedict said. “We all happy.”
“After what happened to the other two, I should imagine all the guards will be on their best behaviour now, and be grateful that they’ve got a cushy war job compared with many men.” Gracie sighed.
“Well, we’d better get back to work as those plums won’t pick themselves, but the wasps will help themselves.”
Back at work, with Phylly joining in with the picking, Benedict began to sing a gentle sounding Italian song she hadn’t heard before.
She’d no idea what the words meant, but the song was soothing and what they all needed as their minds absorbed all that had happened.
“Phylly, is there anything you’d especially like me to pack for your picnic?” Bea asked when she brought a snack and drink for them later that morning. “Picnic?” Phylly asked. “For you and Edwin,” Bea reminded her. “I thought you were going to show him Yaxley Castle?”
“Yes. I’d forgotten about it with everything that’s been going on.” Phylly bit her bottom lip. “Perhaps we should call it off. It wouldn’t be right to go out enjoying ourselves with Aunt Min dying.”
Bea touched Phylly’s arm. “You should go. Aunt Min wouldn’t have wanted you to cancel it, and I’m sure Edwin’s really looking forward to it. Don’t disappoint him.” She blinked back tears. “Go and remember Aunt Min with happiness.”
“As long as you’re sure it wouldn’t be disrespectful.”
“I’m sure.” Bea smiled at her, then turned to speak to Gracie. “You wanted to ask me something about Richard’s socks?”
Leaving them to talk about knitting the heels of socks, Phylly wandered over to sit in the shade with Benedict and Roberto.
“You and Edwin together?” Benedict asked Phylly quietly. “You love him?”
Phylly nearly choked on her mouthful of cold tea.
“No, we’re not together. We just like each other’s company and are good friends. Nothing more.”
Benedict looked her straight in the eyes.
“You make lovely couple. I think he like you.” Phylly smiled. “Honestly, Benedict, we are just friends.”
“I think you like him here.” Benedict laid a hand over his heart and beamed at her. “He same for you. I see it. Is good.”
“You Italians are so romantic.” Phylly laughed. “But I can assure you there isn’t any romance between us.”
“Go and remember Aunt Min with happiness”
“There could be if you let it.”
But I’m not going to let it, Phylly thought. It was far too risky to let herself fall in love again, even with Edwin.
Jimmy looked at the clock on the classroom wall. It had barely moved since he last checked.
He sighed. Today felt like the longest day he’d ever spent at school, and every second seemed to take ten times as long to pass. The more he looked at the clock, the slower it seemed to go.
Keep busy, that’s what Aunt Min always said if you wanted to forget about something.
With a final glance at the clock, which was hardly any further on, Jimmy applied himself to his work and carefully marked the countries the teacher had listed on the blackboard on to his map.
He concentrated hard, focusing on getting it right, because he liked learning about different places.
His dad used to tell him stories about the countries he’d been to, and one day Jimmy hoped he’d see some of those places for himself.
For now he had to get the map right, putting Australia and New Zealand in the right place to start with.
Following Aunt Min’s advice must have worked, because the rest of the afternoon passed quickly, and he was relieved when the teacher told the class to put away their maps as it was time to home.
Jimmy was ready quicker than he’d ever been before, sitting up straight, eager for them to be dismissed.
The moment he was through the gate, he ran as fast as his legs would carry him. He raced through the village and took the road back to Catchett’s Farm.
His mind was racing, too, feeling like it was ready to burst with all the questions he had for Jacob and Ned.
Sprinting into the farmyard, he saw Ned working in one of the barns, so instead of going straight to the house as he normally would after school, he rushed over to him.
“Ned!” he panted, putting his hands on his knees and bending over to catch his breath.
“Hello, Jimmy. Are you all right?”
Jimmy nodded as he stood up straight and then started firing off questions.
“What time did the guards come back? Did they put up a fight?”
“I’ll tell you about it another time. You need to come indoors.” Ned put a hand on Jimmy’s shoulder and steered him out of the barn and across the yard towards the house.
“Why?” Jimmy looked up at Ned’s face. It looked odd, as if he was very uncomfortable. “What’s the matter?”
He couldn’t understand why Ned was being like this He ought to be glad about what happened last night.
The kitchen was full of the mouth-watering smell of baking.
Piles of scones were cooling on racks on the wooden table and Bea was busy rolling out pastry, but she stopped at the sight of Jimmy and Ned.
“Jimmy!” Bea smiled at him, but her voice sounded odd. “Come and sit down.”
She pulled out a chair for him and beckoned him to sit, then went over to the sink to wash her hands.
An uneasy feeling crept through Jimmy. Something peculiar was going on.
What was the matter with everyone? Why were they acting strange and looking so ill at ease?
“You go back to work, Ned, while I talk to Jimmy.” Bea pulled out a chair and sat down beside him.
Ned patted Jimmy’s shoulder then went back outside without saying a word.
Jimmy watched him go, and tried to stand up to follow him out in a bid to get answers.
“Wait!” Bea grabbed both his hands in hers and gently settled him back down on the chair.
“What’s going –” Jimmy began, but stopped when he noticed how pale and strained Bea’s face looked. “Are you OK?” he asked. Bea held his hands tighter.
“We’ve had bad news today.” She paused and swallowed hard, her eyes meeting his. “Aunt Min has died.”
Jimmy stared at her. He must have misheard her – he saw her lips move and the words come out, but they didn’t make sense.
“Do you understand what I’m telling you? Aunt Min’s neighbour wrote to me to say that she’d died in her sleep from natural causes.”
“No!” Jimmy shook his head, trying to get those awful words out of his mind. “It can’t be true.” “I’m sorry, but it is.” The world felt as if it had suddenly tipped on its side and everything had altered. His lips felt numb and his stomach had plummeted to the floor.
How could this be true? Just minutes ago he’d been running home from school, bursting to talk to Ned and Jacob about last night, and now this.
Bea was saying that Aunt Min was dead, but she couldn’t be. She’d said she would come back to see him soon. She’d promised!
Jimmy stood up, pushing his chair back so hard it made a harsh scraping noise against the tiled floor.
“It’s not true!” he shouted, running out of the kitchen at full pelt.
“Jimmy!” Bea called, but he didn’t look back.
The sharp tang of tomato plants met Jimmy as he opened the greenhouse door and slipped inside where it was quiet and he could be alone.
He turned a wooden crate upside down and sat down on it, slumping forward with his elbows on his knees and his chin cupped in his hand.
He scuffed at the floor with his boot, twisting his foot from side to side, making a pattern in the soil.
Slowly the meaning of Bea’s words were sinking in.
Jimmy shook his head as a surge of sadness swept through him, making him shake and gulp as sobs erupted out of him. “Jimmy?”
He looked up and saw Jacob standing beside him, twine and his pocket knife in his hand.
“I was tying up some tomato vines down the other end.” He nodded towards the far end of the greenhouse. He crouched down so that his face was level with Jimmy’s.
“They’ve told you about Aunt Min, then?”
“It can’t be true.” Jimmy’s voice came out strangely squeaky because of the huge lump that had wedged itself in his throat.
Jacob laid a hand on his shoulder.
“I’m afraid it is, my man.” More hot tears slid down Jimmy’s face.
“She shouldn’t have gone back. Florrie said she could stay here.” He gulped, his chest heaving as more sobs forced their way out. “I wanted her to stay.”
Jacob patted Jimmy’s shoulder.
“I don’t think it would have mattered where she was if it was her time to go. At least it was peaceful for her.”
They sat quietly for a few minutes as Jimmy cried his tears out.
Aunt Min had died. It didn’t seem real that she was gone and he wouldn’t see her any more; that he wouldn’t go home to her after the war.
Jimmy’s stomach lurched. Where would he go, then? To an orphanage?
“What will happen to me, Jacob?”
“You’ll stay here with us, of course.”
“But what about after the war, when all the other children go back home to their families? I haven’t got one to go back to.”
The sound of singing could still be heard after the truck had left the farmyard and was bumping its way down the lane to the road.
Phylly smiled. She loved the way the Italian POWS sang together, their voices harmonising over the beautiful sounding words.
Benedict and Roberto were always the last to be picked up, and the almost full truck of POWS had been in jubilant mood tonight and were singing loudly when they’d arrived at Catchett’s Farm.
They’d probably carry on all the way back to their camp in celebration that their lives would no longer be tormented by the two guards.
Phylly checked her watch. She’d better get a move on if she was going to be ready for when Edwin arrived.
He’d been promised the loan of a Jeep, so they’d planned to visit the ruins of Yaxley castle to indulge his love of old British buildings.
Up in the bedroom she shared with Gracie, Phylly washed off the dirt, dust and stickiness from a day’s plum picking. It felt good to be clean again.
She changed into her only dress, then brushed her hair and secured it at the sides with clips.
She was applying a final touch of the precious red lipstick which Edwin’s mother, Annie, had sent over from America when Gracie walked in, holding her knitting.
“Oh, you look lovely,” Gracie said. “You should wear that dress more often. The colour really suits you.”
“Thank you.” Phylly bobbed a curtsey. “There’s not much call for wearing your best dress when you’re a land girl picking plums or hoeing weeds.”
She checked her reflection in the mirror and, satisfied that she’d put on the right amount of lipstick, put it away in her drawer.
“You know, from the amount of care you’re taking getting ready, anyone might think you’re sweet on Edwin.”
Phylly turned round to look at Gracie, who had sat down on her bed and was knitting the foot part of a sock after Bea had done the heel for her that afternoon.
“We’re just friends. How many times do I have to tell you that before you believe me, Gracie?
“I’m looking nice for me and no-one else, and it feels good to be wearing something other than Land Army uniform.”
“If you say so.” She grinned. “But you would make a lovely couple.”
“Concentrate on your knitting instead of trying to match me up with Edwin.” Phylly grabbed her cardigan and made for the door. “I’ll see you later.”
Downstairs in the kitchen, Bea had a packed basket ready for her.
“There are some fresh scones, butter and jam in there. I know Edwin likes them,” Bea said.
“Thank you. You do spoil him,” Phylly said, lifting the cloth covering the basket and peeping inside.
“He deserves it. I’m doing it for my friend, Annie, too. She would be baking scones for him if she was here.” Bea sighed. “But she’s not, so I’m doing it for her.”
Phylly picked up the basket.
“I’m sure she appreciates what you’re doing for her son, and perhaps one day you’ll get to see each other again.”
“I hope so. Now we know what happened to her, maybe she’ll swallow her pride and come home when this crazy war is over.”
Phylly glanced at her watch again.
“Edwin should be here soon. I’ll walk down and meet him on the road. Thanks for the picnic, Bea.”
“Just make sure Edwin eats plenty.”
“There’ll be no doubt about that when he sees those scones!” Phylly laughed. “I’ll see you later.”
Outside it was a beautiful September evening, still warm enough but with a softer, gentle heat as swallows darted across the sky, their chattering calls filling the air.
Phylly swung the basket as she walked down the lane, glad to stretch her legs after a day of mostly standing on ladders.
The thought of the evening ahead, exploring the old castle ruins and sharing a picnic with Edwin, made her smile.
He was always such good company, so courteous and interesting to talk to.
Reaching the end of the lane, she left the basket on the ground and climbed up to sit on top of the five-bar gate, from where she had a good view over the hedge tops and would be able to see Edwin coming.
Closing her eyes for a moment, she breathed in deeply, inhaling the sweet scent of the honeysuckle growing in the hedge.
She listened to the sounds of the countryside around her – the birds twittering and the drone of insects.
In moments like this it was hard to believe that there was a war going on.
Phylly sighed and opened her eyes. She wished it was over and everyone could be at peace again. No more fighting; no more killing.
Although she didn’t like the war, it had changed her life for good in many ways. She was doing work she’d never have been able to do otherwise, she was living in a place she loved, had made friends with Gracie and all those living at the farm, and met people from foreign places – Benedict, Roberto and, of course, Edwin.
It hadn’t been all bad, and it had taught them all to make the most of every day, because you never knew what was around the corner.
You snatched what enjoyment you could, especially at times like tonight, when her tired body would rather have just lain on her bed and read a book all evening.
But that would be wasting an opportunity to go out and have fun while she could.
Edwin was late. He should have been here over an hour ago.
Phylly jumped down from her perch on top of the gate and rubbed the back of her legs, which had become numb from sitting up there for so long. Had he forgotten?
Perhaps he’d had to go on an unexpected mission and couldn’t get word to her as there wasn’t a telephone at the farm.
She decided not to wait any longer as she was hungry after a hard day’s work.
If Edwin was just late, then she’d meet him back at the farmhouse.
Phylly was at the table having something to eat with everyone else when she heard the sound of a Jeep pulling into the yard.
It sent her heart leaping with relief that Edwin was finally there and they would be going to the castle after all.
“Better late than never,” Phylly said, getting up from the table and grabbing her cardigan and the picnic basket and making for the door. “I’ll see you later.”
Walking outside into the evening sunshine of the yard, Phylly’s eyes were dazzled for a moment after the dim light of the kitchen.
“Did you forget the time or . . .” She stopped when she saw who it was getting out of the Jeep.
It wasn’t Edwin, but Charlie, one of his friends who she’d met at the 100th Mission dance. Phylly’s stomach clenched as an ice-cold feeling shivered through her.
Charlie took off his cap as he came towards her. “Hello, Phylly.” “Where’s Edwin? Is he all right?”
Charlie cleared his throat. “Edwin didn’t come back from his mission yesterday. He’s missing in action.”
Phylly stared at him for a few moments, then somehow found her voice. “What happened?”
“I can’t tell you much yet, only that his plane was hit and losing height. We don’t know for sure what did happen.” He paused, twisting his cap in his hands.
“Edwin asked me to come to tell you if anything happened to him.” Phylly nodded. “What about Edwin’s mother?”
“She’ll be informed by telegram.” Charlie touched her arm. “I know this is a shock. Is there anything I can do for you, Phylly?”
“No. Thank you.” Phylly swallowed hard.
“I appreciate you coming to tell me.”
“I’ll come and see you as soon as I know any more.” He put on his cap and climbed back in the Jeep. “Goodbye, and take care.”
With a final wave, he drove off.
Phylly stared after him, standing motionless as she listened to the engine going down the lane to the road and eventually fading away into the distance.
Only the familiar sounds of the farmyard remained.
“Phylly! You’re still here!” Gracie’s voice made her jump. “Why didn’t you go with Edwin?”
“It wasn’t him.” Phylly’s voice sounded odd. “It was his friend, Charlie.” Her voice cracked. “Edwin’s missing in action!”
Phylly couldn’t sleep. She’d lain wide awake since she and Gracie had come to bed at ten o’clock.
Gracie had soon fallen asleep, but there had been no escape for Phylly.
Her mind was too full of questions with no answers, with her imagination racing ahead, painting numerous scenarios of what might have happened to Edwin.
She threw off her covers, padded over to the window and parted the black-out curtains to look down into Florrie’s garden which was bathed in moonlight, painting everything in shades of grey.
The memory of the day when Edwin had told them he was the son of Bea’s best friend came back to Phylly.
It had been a big surprise, but since then he’d slipped effortlessly into all their lives, becoming a good friend and a welcome visitor to the farm.
The thought that he might never come back was too much. Phylly couldn’t stop a sob bursting out of her.
“Phylly?” Gracie’s muffled voice startled her.
“Go back to sleep,” Phylly managed, biting down the tide of emotion that threatened to spill out.
Gracie ignored her and got out of bed.
“I remember how hard it is to sleep after getting news like that.” She took hold of Phylly’s hands in hers.
“Edwin’s missing. Hold on to that. That’s what you told me to do, and you were right.”
“Come on, let’s make cocoa. It’ll help you sleep.”
They discovered that they weren’t the only ones who couldn’t sleep.
Bea was sitting at the kitchen table nursing a cup of tea.
She’d drawn back the curtains and the room was bathed in moonlight, which drained all the colour from everything and made the world look as sad as Phylly felt.
“Phylly, Gracie. Are you all right?” Bea asked.
“We need some cocoa,” Gracie said.
“I’ll make some for you.” Bea went to stand up.
“No, I’ll do it.” Gracie pulled out a chair and steered Phylly to sit down.
“Couldn’t you sleep, either?” Phylly asked. Bea shook her head. “I keep thinking about Annie. She’ll have heard Edwin’s missing by now.
“What must she be feeling so far away with not a thing she can do but wait?”
“And hope.” Gracie said, spooning cocoa powder into two cups. “There’s always hope.
Bea reached over and touched Gracie’s arm.
“Of course there is. We mustn’t give up hope that Edwin’s alive, like Richard, and . . .” Bea’s voice cracked. She sighed deeply, shaking her head.
“What a day we’ve had. First the terrible news about Aunt Min, and having to tell Jimmy the last member of his family has gone, and now Edwin being missing. What’s going to happen next?
“What will become of us all in this horrible, awful, stupid war?” Fat tears trickled down Bea’s face.
Phylly grabbed hold of Bea’s hand.
“It’ll be all right, Bea. We’ll get through it.”
But would they, Phylly thought. Would they really?
To be concluded.