Vinnie's War, page 1
Also by David McRobbie and published by Allen & Unwin
A Whole Lot of Wayne
Eugénie Sandler PI
First published in 2011
Copyright © David McRobbie, 2011
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. The Australian Copyright Act 1968 (the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or ten per cent of this book, whichever is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) under the Act.
Allen & Unwin
83 Alexander Street
Crows Nest NSW 2065
Phone: (61 2) 8425 0100
Fax: (61 2) 9906 2218
A Cataloguing-in-Publication entry is available
from the National Library of Australia
ISBN 978 1 74237 576 2
Teachers’ notes available from www.allenandunwin.com
Cover and text design by Sandra Nobes
Front cover images: clouds/figures by Bradley Mason/iStockphoto; St Paul’s Cathedral by Herbert Mason, 29-Dec-40
Back cover image from Britain at War by J.B. Priestley, Angus and Robertson Ltd, 1943
The images used for chapter openings are from WWII memorabilia
Photo on p190 is of Newton Academy class, Ayr, 1944 or 1945, by I. & S. Sternstein, Glasgow
Set in 11.5 pt Classic Garamond by Sandra Nobes
eBook production by Midland Typesetters, Australia
Vinnie didn’t want to be in this place, not with hundreds of miserable kids crowding around him. Everywhere he looked they were sobbing and carrying on as if their hearts would break. Their mums, too, were upset, and who could blame them? It wasn’t every day a mother had to say goodbye to her children, then send them away on a train to wherever.
First chance Vinnie got, he planned to be off out of this chaos, back to the East End, bombs or no bombs. That’s where he belonged and where he’d try his luck, but getting away wasn’t going to be easy. A bothered-looking official from the town hall had escorted Vinnie and a bunch of other kids to the station that September morning. They’d all been rounded up for evacuation after being bombed out of their houses. Thank you, Mr Hitler, Vinnie thought, bet you enjoyed your first air raid on London. We’ll do the same for you some day – with knobs on.
Vinnie felt raw and tearful at having to leave the pub where he’d lived and worked. Everything had happened so fast he hadn’t even said a proper goodbye to the three most important people in his life. Instead, here he was, lined up in Euston Station, wearing a cardboard luggage label. It was tied on with string done up in a bow, and it told everyone that he was: ‘vincent cartwright. 13.’ When the town hall man wasn’t looking, Vinnie tugged the label off and crushed it under his shoe. If he couldn’t be free, at least he could do that.
A distracted woman crouched nearby to comfort her small son. ‘Oh, please don’t make a fuss, Joey,’ she whispered.
‘You come with us, Mum,’ Joey pleaded. ‘You come on the train, too. Please.’
‘No, I have work to do in London, Joey. But Kathleen will be with you, won’t you, Kathleen?’
Joey’s older sister took his hand. ‘Of course I will, Joey. It’ll be an adventure, you and me going off together.’
‘But where are we going?’
‘That’s part of the adventure,’ Kathleen encour-aged her brother. ‘It’s a mystery. We’ll find out when we get there.’
Kathleen, Joey and their mum were soon lost in the crowd. Then the town hall man, too overwhelmed to be polite, consulted a paper and called loudly to Vinnie’s group, ‘Right, boys and girls, pay attention here. Your train leaves from Platform Four.’ He pointed. ‘That way.’
There was a heavy iron gate at Platform Four, opened only just wide enough to let the evacuee kids through in single file. Once past that gate and on to a train, Vinnie would be trapped.
With no alternative, he sighed and followed the others.
One summer morning as Vinnie Cartwright walked to school, he saw an unusual sight. The small and portly landlord of the corner pub was sweeping the pavement outside his front door – and not doing it very well. Vinnie pointed to a tram ticket at his foot and grinned, then called, ‘Mr Rosen, you missed this bit.’
‘Enough of your cheek, young Cartwright.’ The landlord leaned on his broom, puffing slightly.
‘Why are you sweeping up?’ Vinnie persisted. ‘Where’s Aaron?’
‘He’s gone to join the Royal Air Force. Bloody war.’
‘It might not start,’ Vinnie said. ‘Where there’s hope…’
‘It’ll start. You’ll see.’
‘I could do Aaron’s work,’ Vinnie offered. ‘Some of it, anyway. Before and after school. All day Saturdays, if you like.’
The landlord looked Vinnie up and down, then asked, ‘How old are you, son?’
‘Twelve – and I’m strong.’
‘All right, Vinnie. I’ll give you a go. See you at four, eh?’
‘I’ll be here, Mr Rosen. And don’t forget that tram ticket.’
The same afternoon, Vinnie collected four empty beer glasses from the top of the pub piano, then carried them behind the bar. Mrs Rosen, the landlord’s wife, was washing up. ‘Must say you’re a brave one, Vinnie Cartwright. Brave as a lion.’
‘Why’s that?’ he asked.
‘Your Aunty Vera’s not going to be happy with you working in a pub.’
‘She doesn’t need to know, does she?’
‘Oh, Vinnie, Vinnie.’ Mrs Rosen raised her eyebrows, shook her head, then made a song of it: ‘If you knew Vera like I know Vera.’
There had been no father in Vinnie’s life. Not one that he could remember, at least, although from time to time men had stayed in his mother’s house, sometimes for as long as a fortnight. They were usually sailors, often rough and with little to say for themselves. Vinnie had learned to make himself scarce, sometimes spending a wintry night wandering the streets before creeping indoors again to see what his welcome would be.
When he was eleven, Vinnie’s mother had died of the twin Ds – drink and depression, with a bit of poverty thrown in too. He was not on his own for long. Soon after a cheap funeral, a tall woman with a fox fur around her neck had said, ‘Vincent, you’re to stay with me.’
The only other place for him was the orphanage, where everyone knew that kids ate thin porridge and broke big stones all day with a hammer. He’d thought the woman didn’t look the porridge type, so he agreed to go. Not that he’d much say in it, really.
‘You can call me Aunty Vera.’ The woman had managed a thin smile. It was to be her first and only.
Vinnie soon discovered that ‘Aunty’ Vera wasn’t his aunt at all, but a foster-mother, approved by the welfare people at the town hall. She liked things to be ‘nice’. And Vinnie wasn’t. ‘Oh dear,’ she’d said when she got him home to her sparkling house and examined what was in his cardboard suitcase. ‘Oh dear, oh dear.’
Vinnie’s clothes had been clean enough, but ragged. He had two cotton shirts, one pair of
Aunty Vera just sighed ‘Oh dear’ again, then rummaged in a deep trunk and ordered in a no-nonsense voice, ‘Off with what you’re wearing, Vincent.’
‘What? With you looking at me?’
‘Why would I look at you?’ Aunty Vera demanded. So Vinnie cautiously took off his clothes. With a pair of tongs from the fireplace, she picked up his old trousers, then opened the door of the Aga cooker and stuffed them inside. His pants burst into flames.
Next Aunty Vera gave Vinnie a pair of green velvet short trousers that were too long for him, and big around the middle. Worse still, they had a large, decorative button on each leg, at the side hem.
‘Did these belong to some girl?’
‘No they did not,’ Aunty Vera snapped. ‘They belonged to my son, Archibald.’
Vinnie looked unhappily at his new shimmering trousers. ‘In the circus, was he?’
‘Archibald is a cook in the Royal Navy. Fighting for his King and country. Or he will be, when the war starts.’
Next to come was a shirt with a tail so long it hung out the bottom of Vinnie’s velvet trousers. Vinnie tucked it between his legs and said, ‘This is a nightshirt.’
‘It is not, so be thankful for it.’ Aunty Vera picked up his old shirt and poked it into the flames along with his trousers, which were blazing merrily. Vinnie wondered how he could go to school wearing this outfit.
Aunty Vera produced a pile of other garments that had belonged to Archibald. ‘There’s still a lot of wear in these, Vincent. We can’t have you turning up at Sunday school looking like a vagrant, can we?’
Vinnie thought, Sunday school, eh? Monday-to-Friday school, fair enough. But Sunday school, no. Not even a maybe.
That had been the beginning of a war between Vinnie and Aunty Vera. Whenever he could, he’d resisted her, starting at a street market where he’d swapped Archibald’s extravagant trousers for more ordinary clothes. Vinnie only went once to Sunday school before finding better ways to spend his day off. And most weekday mornings he went to school early; afternoons he stayed late, making use of the library. Anything was better than returning to Aunty Vera’s cold but spotless house, where the mat at the back door didn’t say ‘welcome’, but ‘wipe your feet’.
A job in the pub was just what he wanted.
Vinnie settled in well with Mr and Mrs Rosen, making himself useful, earning smiles and a few bob. Three weeks went by like this; then the other boy arrived.
Mr Rosen picked him up in London and brought him back to the pub one quiet afternoon. ‘This is Isaac,’ he announced to Vinnie. ‘A Jewish lad who’s managed to get out of Germany.’
‘Just in time, I’d say.’ Mrs Rosen embraced the boy warmly, then took a second or two to compose herself. In a voice that was now a whisper she said, ‘We’ve been worried you’d not make it out, Isaac, but you are very welcome in our house.’
‘Thank you,’ Isaac replied. He was tall and thin, about fifteen, Vinnie guessed, with stooped shoulders and long black hair. ‘You are so kind. My parents will soon escape to Britain too, I hope. Then we’ll be a family again. Safe here.’
‘Until that day, Isaac, you just make yourself right at home.’ Mrs Rosen touched the boy’s shoulder gently and ruffled his dark hair.
‘But please, I must work, to pay for this, for your kindness.’
‘There’s no need,’ Mrs Rosen assured him.
‘Well…’ Mr Rosen said. ‘With Aaron away, perhaps we could do with some help, dear.’ He looked at Vinnie and gave a small, apologetic shrug.
Vinnie understood. It had been a good job while it lasted.
On that late August night the pub was busier than usual. The newspapers and the BBC wireless said that war was getting closer, and people seemed to cling together, looking for support and hope. One loud voice at the bar shouted, ‘If it starts, it’ll all be over by Christmas.’
Someone else answered, ‘That’s what they said about the last war.’
Vinnie worked until closing time, when customers stumbled into the street singing the song ‘There’ll always be an England’. With nothing to do, he made his way back to Aunty Vera’s house.
Vinnie tried to tiptoe in, but she’d been waiting up for him, nursing a sharp question: ‘And what time do you call this, young man?’
‘I was at a friend’s place,’ he lied, ‘playing Monopoly.’
Aunty Vera sniffed the air around him. ‘Tobacco! Vincent, have you been smoking?’
‘No,’ Vinnie said. That bit was true. The pub air was always thick with pipe and cigarette smoke. The smell clung to everything; to clothes and hair.
Aunty Vera stepped closer and sniffed again, then recoiled. ‘Beer!’ She almost spat the word at him. ‘Beer! Not in my house. You’ve given me nine months of trouble. So, back to the town hall in the morning. We’ll see if the welfare people will find a place for you – in the orphanage!’
That word came like a sting. Vinnie thought, Anything but the orphanage. In the pub he’d found things he’d never had before. Laughter, for a start. She would take it away from him – that and his freedom.
Vinnie looked at Aunty Vera and said, ‘You can see the welfare if you want, but me? I’m off now.’
And he left her place right then and there, using the front door and not the back.
There was a shed in the pub yard, used for storing empty beer crates. Sneaking inside was no problem. Working in the darkness, Vinnie laid four beer crates end-to-end to form a bed, then used his suitcase for a pillow, making himself as comfortable as he could. This late in summer, the night was warm enough so that he’d not freeze.
He lay in the darkness, hands behind his head, and thought about things. With Isaac living in the pub, there would be no job for him anymore. That was plain – Mr Rosen’s look had said it all. And Aunty Vera would report him to the welfare. He could hear her now: The boy’s utterly wilful, a heathen and a boozer who smokes like a factory chimney. So who knew what the welfare people would do when they caught him? Or where they’d send him.
Sleep wouldn’t come, and it wasn’t because the beer crates were hard. He’d slept in much harder places; a shop doorway even. His mind drifting now, Vinnie remembered one of his mum’s sailor friends who’d come back on his ship from somewhere tropical. The man had said, ‘Here y’are, son. Brought you a Christmas box. All the way from West Africa.’ The gift was a parcel, wrapped in glittery paper and tied with a ribbon. Inside was a big, rough lump of raw, unprocessed chocolate. It didn’t look like a chocolate bar that came out of the machine at the Underground station – this chocolate was so hard Vinnie had to break it with the coal hammer. When he finally managed to get a bit small enough to go in his mouth, it was so bitter he spat it straight out.
The man enjoyed his joke, and Vinnie had pretended to because his mum said he was a big boy now and had to learn to take a few ups and downs.
But was his life always to be like that; always to be the butt of somebody’s unkind trick?
He mused in the darkness: You find a good thing, enjoy it for a while, until it gets ripped away.
Vinnie slept, and woke in the morning still bitter. He’d have to find a new place to live, and the earlier the better. Then someone began playing the piano. Vinnie recognised it as the old piano in the pub, for he’d heard it often enough, hammering out rumpy-tump, daisy-daisy sorts of tunes for a beery singsong.
But this sound was different. It was a melody he’d never heard before, and it touched him and soothed him like no music had ever done. Vinnie had to see who was playing. He got off
Inside the pub, he found the Jewish boy, Isaac, seated at the piano with a faraway look in his eyes. He was off somewhere in a private world of the music he was making. In the background, still in their dressing gowns, stood Mr and Mrs Rosen, watching and listening. Mrs Rosen caught sight of Vinnie and put a finger to her lips, so he’d not interrupt. It was a warning Vinnie didn’t need.
He could almost feel the music inside him. His spine tingled and the hair on the back of his neck rippled. No one spoke, or moved, as Isaac played on. Vinnie wished it would never stop.
Isaac played on for a minute or two, crouched over the piano keys, then realised Vinnie was watching and listening intently. ‘Ah, Vinnie. I disturb you.’ He raised his fingers from the keyboard.
‘No, don’t stop. Don’t stop playing, not for me. Please.’
‘Nor for us, Isaac.’ Mr Rosen came into the bar, clapping his hands as he approached. ‘That was marvellous. Such a tune, to be wrung out of that old piano, eh?’
‘To think we’d hear such fine sounds in this place.’ Mrs Rosen beamed and nodded. ‘Bravo, Isaac. Bravo!’
Isaac smiled shyly as he faced them. ‘Thank you. My first audience in Britain.’
‘May there be many more,’ Mr Rosen said, then turned to Vinnie. ‘And why are you here so early, young Vinnie?’
Mrs Rosen had already guessed the reason. ‘I bet it was Aunty Vera.’ She laughed. ‘Come on, have some breakfast and tell us the sad story.’ Mrs Rosen ushered Vinnie and Isaac into the pub kitchen, singing, ‘If you knew Vera,’ in an amused sort of way.
It was settled over breakfast. Vinnie would keep working in the pub, but better still, he and Isaac could share the spare bedroom upstairs. When Aaron came home on leave from the RAF, they’d sort something out. To keep up his studies, Isaac would use the piano when the pub was shut. ‘Perhaps I could play for the customers,’ he suggested.