In 1939 my father was twelve; at the time war was declared he was staying with his uncle and aunt in Linton in Cambridgeshire, helping on the farms and enjoying a lot of freedom. It was, in his mind an idyllic time: of trout tickling and nights with Sid Seeley the poacher; of huge meals courtesy of his Aunt Mabs; of the ribald humour of his Uncle Edgar, the Post master; of playing with his cousins which, as a single child of a smothering mother was both bliss and a nightmare. He knew of the impending horrors, of the fears that leadened the conversations, of the adult infatuation with the radio news bulletins, but still he would have gone back in a heart beat. His life changed that summer, in some ways for the better given that it was wartime circumstance that brought him and my mother together.
Today, as we stay indoors, avoid people, we wonder what things will look like for us when we emerge on the other side of this pandemic, and we talk of a war against an invisible enemy whose defeat we are told is certain though the date of that victory is unknown and unknowable and the cost..? We speak of how things haven’t been like this since those five and something years from 1939.
Years later, in his sixties, my age now, my father cast his mind back to that September day and wrote the piece below. Like then, today in the UK nature is playing her mischievous games: the sun shines, after the deluges of recent months and the gardens and green spaces are bulging with life: a cherry tree throbs with bees; apple blossom explodes with early expectation; wall flowers stand tall and cry ‘look at me’ with no irony; daffs, tulips, forget-me-nots all splash their tarty show. What do they care of our problems, of this species cleansing we face if we fail to take it seriously, if we fail to put all we hold dear on the line? How will we look back? How will our children consider this life changing event? Will they remember the sombre tones of Prime Ministers and Presidents and Mayors and experts galore and our nervousness and twitchy horror and the latest lurch into the future or the glorious spring of 2020?
This how Dad remembered it. Let’s hope our children can do the same and maintain perspective; it’s all we have.
A slight breeze stirred the topmost twigs of my uncle Edgar’s Victoria plum. The old tree was laden with fruit, rich and rosy-yellow, hanging like swollen raindrops along a gate bar. Overburdened branches sagged, and wasps, already gorged stupid on sweet juice, sluggishly shouldered their way into soft, ripe flesh.
On my own, in the long grass I gazed upwards, squinting against the flickering sunlight. Leaves rustled, and a plum, half-filled with wasps, thudded quietly into the grass. For a few moments the disturbed occupants stopped eating and murmured crossly.
Now only the sun seemed to move, warming my face as it rose higher above the trees. I daydreamed, in a world all green and golden and fragrant with the perfume of my aunt Mabel’s Sweet Williams.
My eyelids drooped.
I heard the kitchen window being opened and my uncle saying, ‘Turn on the wireless, Mabel.’ There was a peculiar whistling sound. The wireless set was warming up. Atmospherics scratched and crackled, then a tinny voice said ‘__ no such undertaking has been received and consequently this country is at war with Germany.’
I lay still. Down in the orchard a wood pigeon was cooing drowsily. Near my head there was another squashy thump. It was a marvellous year for plums.