EXTRACT FROM SIX SPOONS OF SUGAR

February 10, 1943

Suddenly, there’s a shadow. Gone in the blink of an eye, a roar and an ear-splitting crash…and the People’s Pantry on the corner of Friar Street and opposite the town hall is no more. 

I am ten and mad keen on aeroplanes. Only Smith Junior says he can recognise a German bomber quicker than I can. I know this is a Dornier as it skims the roof tops and I run helter-skelter with my mum as two long cylinders come tumbling from its belly…

I’m picking myself up; there is a ringing in my ears so I can barely hear. There is dust in my eyes so I can hardly see. And there is dryness in my throat so I can scarcely cry out… Mum, where’s my mum?



July 12, 1939

Dad’s going off to his wireless now. “I’ll catch the end of the nine o’clock news with any luck,” I hear him say. “There might be developments.”

But there aren’t. Ingie finishes her homework and pops in on her way to bed. “I heard the wireless man say things are not good. We must be prepared, he said. This war is still a possibility if Mr Hitler doesn’t see sense.”

And it’s not just on Dad’s wireless either. Ingie says people in the street talk about nothing else. It’s war, war, war, everywhere you go. “Surely you’ve heard?”

I say I saw a picture of some funny men marching across the front of Dad’s newspaper, just like tin soldiers. Row upon row of them. “What do you think they are doing, Ingie?”

“Goose stepping. Goose stepping for Mr Hitler. And they’re not funny, Little Brother…they’re very serious.”

“Well, my teacher, Mr Bentham, said we should keep a scrapbook and I’m going to put Mr Hitler’s goosy men in mine. They’re going to be the first.”

 

 

August 12, 1939

Now there’s a horn tooting outside and it’s the taxi driver. I run down the path to tell him, “We’re nearly ready.” He’s a chirpy little man with a waistcoat frayed round the edges and a flat cap to match. And a packet sticking out of his pocket with the word RIZLA on it. 

“Is that the kitchen sink you got in the big brown case,” he asks. Then says, “Phew,” wipes his brow and reckons you catch an ernia lifting things like that.

“Biggles and Rupert Bear are in there,” I tell him. “We can’t leave them behind.”

The taxi driver pats me on my head and asks, “Evacuating then, sonny?” And I tell him we’re going to Auntie’s to escape Mr Hitler’s bombs. Podgy, my friend, had said, “Don’t tell no-one nuffink in case they’re German spies.” But I thought our plans were safe with the taxi driver.

I say that my Dad has to stay back and look after the bank, but I’m still a lucky boy and he rolls one of his Rizlas then licks the edge and lights up. He’s staying put. He’s not leaving London for no-one and blows a great puff of smoke and then coughs from right deep down. He says it’s touch and go who’ll get him first…the ones he rolls himself or Mr Hitler.

We climb in and the taxi chugs off down the road, past Isobel’s, then the church. Reverend Runcorn has a sign hanging over the front porch saying Meet Thy Maker Today.

We look back at our house as we turn the corner, the only one I’ve ever known, and Podgy waving and his dog barking. The taxi driver thinks Podgy’s dog would have a bit of Mr Hitler if he ventured this way. Somewhere between the front gate and the tradesman’s entrance, if we were to ask him. 

Ingie and me catch a last glimpse of Timmy, our cat, as the taxi turns out of our street and heads towards Paddington. Dad tells us our train leaves at 1.30. Sharp, he calls it.


November 10, 1939

“Oh, Christmas is going to be wonderful, “Auntie is saying. “All of us gathered round on Christmas Day. This silly old war won’t spoil it for us…I won’t let it.”

And now she’s saying how Ingie and me can make a start by gathering the holly from the bush at the end of the garden and stringing it up around the doors and picture frames and across the fireplace. Then making the paper chains. 

“It’s not Christmastime ‘till the paper chains have gone up,” she says. 

“Will we have a Christmas tree, Auntie? If you have them down in the country.”

Auntie talks to the cat. “Of course we have Christmas trees in the country, don’t we, Fluff?” 

And Fluff and Auntie say I’m a silly not knowing they’re grown by Farmer Millsom, the Hen Farmer, as a sideline. Farmer Millsom who sells us the lovely brown eggs for breakfast every morning. 

And then she’s telling us how Farmer Millsom learnt his hen farming at farming college and how it taught him that hens don’t lay many eggs when it gets cold and dark. “So he took up Christmas trees as a sideline.”

Now it’s time to ruffle my hair and smile into my face with her sparkly old eyes and all those wrinkles. 

“You see, there’s so much to learn down in the country.” 

Then giving Fluff his bowl of tripe, the dinner he doesn’t have to catch, while I go off to tell Mum we’re getting our Christmas tree from Farmer Millsom, the man who left his feathers in Mr Alfie’s taxi.

“It’s so kind of Auntie to teach you all these things about the country, Son,” Mum says. “I hope you thanked her.”

 

June 22, 1941

Dad goes up to the pub to “think it over” and tells Mum when he gets back how Mr Jiggins had said he predicted something like this would happen. 

“That ‘itler and that Stalin,” Mr Jiggins told Dad. “Sleep with dogs and you catches fleas.”

And Mr Alfie said, “Birds of a feather flock together.”

Then Old Joe said from behind the bar, “Live by the sword, die by the sword…”

Dad said he just nodded. He didn’t want to commit himself. Anyway, he wasn’t certain what all these fleas and feathers and swords had got to do with Hitler marching on Russia.

Then Mr Jiggins said, “You’re a clever bloke, Perce, coming from that bank of yours. You expected this, I reckon. That ‘itler attacking ‘is friends, them Russians.”

Dad nodded again. “There is a lot of this war to run yet, Mr Jiggins,” he said. “A lot to run yet… ” And downed his pint and came home. He said that was enough thinking things over for one night.

May 2, 1942

School can’t end soon enough. We’re to run home as quickly as we can, have our tea, then meet on the Village Green so we can go straight up to see the American soldiers, Screaming Eagles. And Bobby says it’s best if we don’t tell our Mums in case they say we can’t. 

And we run across the field, through the long grass, with butterflies and bees all around us, to the Mansion Grounds, hanging onto the fence and our faces pressed against the wire so it leaves criss-cross marks on our cheeks and the Americans are everywhere, covering their tanks and guns with stuff that looks like Auntie’s lace curtains. Only their lace stuff is painted with green and brown patches.

“Camouflage,” said Bobby, who saw some of their lace stuff at the pictures on Saturday. “It’s very good for hiding tanks and guns so the enemy doesn’t know how many you’ve got.”

 

And there are lots of huts and each one is like a big “C” upside down and they’re putting all their stuff inside so the enemy can’t see that either. Their helmets and the bags that go on their backs.

“Their kit,” says Colin, who knows what you call a bag you put on your back.

We are all very excited, even pretty Lydia and Lizzie who is too little to understand, seeing the Americans everywhere with their tanks and trucks and loads of Jeeps tearing about their camp.

“There’s our Tank Commander,” cries Bobby. “The one we saw this morning.”

Our Tank Commander sees us hanging onto the fence and comes over. Some others do the same. Big American soldiers with heavy boots and their trousers tucked into their socks and tin helmets and some with stripes on their jackets.

“Don’t you be frightened,” Lydia tells Lizzie.

“Hey, you kids, haven’t you seen an American soldier before?”

“Only at the pictures, Sir," says Bobby. “My brother took me last Saturday… you were very good.”

“And we saw you this morning,” says Collin. “I remember you looking out of your tank. I waved.”

“Say, you’re right, I remember, we were going up to our new base, through your little village. Pretty, isn’t it?”

And they squat down and look straight into our faces, the Tank Commander who is tall and one that is not so tall with a nice smile and some others and they are all very friendly. 

“I’m Hank,” says the tall one, “And I’m mighty pleased to meet you.”

Bobby says, “Your General came to see us at school. He said how you’re going to win the war. As long as we don’t get in your way when you’re having a manoeuvre.”

And they all laugh like Bobby’s said something really funny. Then they dig into their pockets and bring out sweets and other nice things that we can’t get because Mr Hitler has sunk all our boats. And chewing gum which he can’t sink because we don’t have any.

“That’s Captain Swartz,” says the Tank Commander. “Swartzie, to us. He’s not a bad guy. Here, have some more candy and gum… Uncle Sam gives us plenty…”

“Wish I had an uncle like yours,” says Lydia.

And the Americans all laugh again, with their white teeth and wide smiles. Then the Tank Commander says they had better get and do some work.

“If Swatzie says we’ve got to do maneouvres, we’d better get and do them, eh guys.”

And they go off to do some. And we run home, all the way, through the long grass with butterflies and bees and warm sunshine then down the lane with the birds singing and our pockets packed with candy and gum from Uncle Sam. It’s easily the best day of my life.

“Mum, look what the American soldiers just gave me…”

June 28, 1944

I am in Dad's pub, in my little corner watching Dad drinking up, as he calls it, with the others and the Americans who have come back from fighting when Mr Hank our Tank Commander sees me and comes over. "Say, if it isn't the Bank Manager's kid... I got this bit of paper on the D-Day invasion that you wanted for your scrapbook."  And tells me one of the other men wrote it out for me, one that landed on this place called Omaha Beach. "I told you I would get something... I didn't let you down..."

I think it's okay to smile.

He tells me I look like the cat that's gotten all the cream. "Don't thank me, thank Robert Bowen, he wrote it out.  But it's no fairy tale...  I wouldn't read it before you hit the sack or you'll get nightmares... real nightmares."

"'This is it men, let's go!'  Lieutenant Aspinall's voice rang out as he pushed along the crowded aisle of the landing craft.  The Channel was covered by a mass of ships, fighting the choppy water which made them bob like corks.  Behind us were Bruno Primas and Jimmy Gilstrap, rifleman from my squad. Once we hit the shore our lives would change in ways none of us could ever have imagined.  Although we were not thinking it at the time, we were about to embark on an experience that would affect us forever.    The gruesome nauseating signs of battlefields would haunt me for the rest of my life, shake my confidence and alter my personality...

We were still several hundred yards from the beach when a German shell came screaming our way, everyone involuntarily drawing his head into his shoulders and clutching at the sides of the boat.  It dropped between our boat and the next with a crash, shrapnel shards whining over our heads.  Suddenly one of the Navy coxswains pitched forward on the boat, his brain pierced.

We passed a half-sunken LCVP, one of those that had unloaded the 4th Infantry Division earlier in the morning.  As we went by we noticed bodies trapped under the water or floating nearby, their faces white and staring.  I looked away.  Soon our boat turned off its engine and shuddered to a stop, lurching forward onto the beach.  The ramp then dropped with a great splash.  Aspinall looked sternly into my eyes, and said softly, 'Let's kill some Germans, Sergeant.'  He then turned to the rest of the men in the boat and yelled, 'Let's go, men.  Keep together.  No straggling.'"