River Wissey Lovell Fuller

The Story of an Evacuee

November 2002

Part 2

After our train ride to Brighton and the assembling of all the children in Patcham School, so that individual children could be 'chosen' by their surrogate parents, my six year old brother and I sat practically alone in the large school hall. Every other child from our old school had gone, including our sister, and for the first time that day the reality of the situation sank in. I wanted to go home, the tears were moistening the eyes as I tried to smile at my brother who was still gripping my hand as though his life depended on it. He just looked miserable and bewildered.

One of 'Them' reappeared, not one of the kindly ladies we had spoken to earlier, this one was walking with a sense of purpose and an air that said "I'm in charge and you will do as you are told". Trailing in her wake was a man in a grey suit and a woman in a pretty dress, the latter looked like someone in the pictures in my mother's magazines. They followed at less than the woman's brisk pace and with evident lack of enthusiasm so that the gap between her and them was increasing. 'She' who would be obeyed stopped in front of us then looked back with an air of impatience at the other two. When they caught up 'She' turned to us, "Stand up" was the command. We stood. She then introduced us to Mr and Mrs Fox "who are going to look after you". (Fox is a pseudonym, I can't remember their true name). Mr Fox reminded me of the insurance man that used to call for regular payments. He was slim, not as tall as our dad but he still looked down at us through heavily rimmed spectacles. He tried to sound friendly, but he was unconvincing. The pretty lady looked a better bet but she seemed to be intimidated by him and just as ill at ease with the situation as we were. To us they were 'grown ups' but looking back they were probably still in their twenties.

We were led out to an Austin Seven Ruby, which was obviously fairly new, and put in the back seat. When the front seats were lowered we knew we were trapped. Mrs Fox sat in and turned to give us a smile, she, at least, presented a bright picture in her floral dress which contrasted with his sombre manner and appearance. I tried to see where we going, looking past his brylcreemed head, but it was all very unfamiliar and confusing.

The house was new, semi-detached, with a roof that sloped down to first floor level on the right hand side. Inside was like a show house, everything looked new, it had a bathroom with a wash basin and hot running water. Wow! - Running water of any kind was a novelty for us, there was none in our flat at home, all our water had to be carried from the floor below. The only problem was it was all so neat and tidy that we felt ill at ease as though we dare not touch anything, I expect they felt equally ill at ease at the thought that we might. Our bedroom was tiny with a sloping ceiling, we had a folding camp bed that we had to share. The blankets were red and heavy with a unique 'new blanket' smell that has triggered these memories every time that I have smelt it since, although I have not smelt it in recent years, I don't think they make blankets like that anymore, perhaps they had been government issue. After we had put down our bags and raincoats we were invited to 'go out and play' and that was to be the theme for the period of our stay with the Foxes. The garden was freshly and roughly dug so 'going out to play' meant going out in the road. The house was in a quiet and tidy new estate, traffic was light so that was not a problem but there was nothing to do. We had no ball or toys of any sort and so we just sat on the grass of a small triangle on a corner feeling miserable and hungry. We had only eaten our cheese and crackers since breakfast.

Finally we were called in for tea. We ate alone in the kitchen, I can't remember what we had for tea but I can remember still being hungry when we went to bed.

The next day was Sunday. "We are going to visit some friends today" we were told by the still grey suited Mr Fox "so you will have to come with us". After breakfast, porridge not bacon and eggs, it was back in the Austin Seven. I have no idea where we went but it seemed quite a long way before we stopped outside a country cottage with a five bar gate at the entrance to the driveway. The car stopped short of the gate and the Foxes disembarked with the instruction to 'wait here'. We were there for what seemed like an age when, finally as a result of my brother's moaning, I went and knocked on the door to ask if we could use the loo. We were shown one in the garden and directed to go back to the car. After another wait the Foxes finally emerged to tell us that the war had started, so I never heard the famous broadcast by Chamberlain, although I have heard it countless times since of course. The drive home was in sombre mood, Mr and Mrs Fox talking amongst themselves, whilst my brother and I were left with our thoughts and worries. Were our parents going to be blown to pieces? Would we ever see them again?

On Monday we went to school, I have very little recollection of schooling in Brighton. We had to share the school in Patcham with indigenous pupils but I think the arrangement was that we alternated in the use of classrooms and facilities which meant that we did not mix with them directly, even playtimes were staggered, I think. We used the school hall for classes, with more than one class in there at the same time, we also had quite a lot of outside activities I recall. Needless to say I met up with our sister and discovered that she was in a house not very far from us, with some very nice people.

After school I collected little brother and went back to the Foxes, once again we were invited to 'go out and play' as soon as tea was finished. We sat on the green triangle bored witless. At one stage an open Civil Defence lorry came past, riding in the back were three or four men all wearing service type gas masks, the type with separate eye-pieces and a convoluted tube going down to a separate filter pack, presumably they were on some sort of training exercise. They looked rather like creatures from another world, fearsome and frightening, especially to my six year old brother and to me no doubt because it remains a very sharp memory.

That was the pattern for our first week with the Foxes, we weren't allowed in the house except for breakfast, tea and bed. Fortunately the weather held. We did go to call for our sister on two occasions and that boosted our morale.

Meanwhile my mother was going frantic for lack of news. The school authorities had told her that we were billeted in the Patcham area of Brighton but they were overwhelmed with the task of providing individual addresses and had still not done so by the end of the first week. Why I had not written to give our address is a mystery to me because I was quite capable of doing so at that time, perhaps I had been characteristically slow about it. Anyhow my father was prevailed upon on the Sunday to take mum to Brighton to find us which he did, despite his argument that it was pointless. They drove around the roads in Patcham in dad's taxi hoping for a sight of one of us, but without success. The real irony, however, was that my brother and I spotted the taxi as it turned a corner and drove away from us. Like in the films when the shipwrecked sailors in a raft wave and shout in a futile manner at the search plane that fails to see them, so we chased up the road after them shouting and waving, but to no avail. Had London taxis been allowed rear view mirrors that looked through the rear window we might have been seen. The disappointment for us was intense and we settled into a state of the deepest melancholy.

Ron Watts

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