Despite the heat of the September morning, they are told to wear their coats, if they have one. Any small possessions can be put in their shoe bags but – be sure – if they leave anything behind, it will not be there when they return. If they ever return.
The sun is rising high in the – so far – empty blue sky. As Johnsmith waits for the children at the head of the queue to start walking, he watches a couple of sparrows nip at the moss on the metal railings. On the move again. A goods train, slow and rumbling, shakes the ground.
During drill, they had been told that danger would come out of the sky. Is this how danger arrives – through the elements? The sky? What about the sea? It was the sea that killed his Daddy and all else on board the fishing boat. But maybe the sea also spelled safety, for it was sailors from the requisitioned HMS Amazon that pulled him from the dark depths off Talacre Point and brought him to Liverpool. Liverpool – where the city dwellers are as raucous as the gulls.
The head of the crocodile slowly detaches itself from the body as Classes II and III make their way through the gates and down the hill towards the river. “Stay in line and hold hands, everyone”, shouts one of the nuns.
As soon as they are out onto the pavement, Billy Atkins lets go of his hand and runs towards his chums. No doubt Johnsmith will get into trouble for losing his partner but his knuckles have been squeezed hard enough in Billy’s spiteful grip.
The nuns and the teachers harass and harry the one hundred and sixty or so children down Brownlow Hill. Gravity and expectation quicken their steps although a few, mainly girls, are tight-lipped with concern.
The City fathers had quizzed him but he could not tell them where he was from, whether he was Eng-lish, from Angle-ter-re, or Gross Brit-ann-i-en, whether his mother or other family were still alive. Somewhere in the rolling, boiling dark Irish Sea it seemed that if he was to be spared his life, he would lose his tongue. As Sister Theobald rightfully but grumpily points out, he still has a tongue in his head. He has just lost the use of it.
So, in the two years since that night of loss and terror, he has learned to write, in English, and adjust his ear to the unfamiliar spoken sounds. At Founders’ Day, in the Chapel, he silently gives thanks to Messrs Brocklebank, Beazley, Royden for the shelter and education that the Liverpool Seamen’s Orphan Institution at Newsham Park is giving a wretch such as he.
As they arrive at the railway station, there are streams of children approaching from all directions. Police and Home Guard shepherd parents and onlookers to the other side of the street. Beneath the arched steel and glass, there is an air of activity and near chaos. Children stand in irregular groups, at risk of bleeding into the wrong group. Loudspeakers beneath the pigeon haunts cast tinny instructions into the air while Guards point to the instructions and platform numbers on the hand-chalked boards.
They are travelling in their Sunday best. The girls in blue pinafores, collars edged in blue and white; the boys in smocks with similar collars; little sailors all of them. This makes them conspicuous.
“Orphan boy! Orphan boy!”
“Lost your Mam and Dad, have ya’ then?”
A sallow lad sticks out his foot as Billy Atkins passes. Billy recovers from his stumble in time to land a bruise on the lad’s cheek with the corner of the box containing his gas mask.
Johnsmith stops at the large gates and stares past the rhododenrons and elms into the setting sun. The house looks like one of those man-o’-war ships – vast and cumbersome. “Sister Alice says it’s entirely made out of wood”, whispers Eleanor as she walks past him.
“Don’t be stupid. The chimneys are made of brick”, someone replies.
Tall chess piece chimneys sit atop a many-gabled black and white house, black wood tracing a dizzying pattern against white stucco.
“And apparently it was brought four or so miles down the road because the lady who lives here wanted her house moved.”
“Don’t be a dick.”
Two nuns steer the last of the raggle taggle group round to the back of the house. “Quiet, children. You are going to have to be very, very quiet, so we don’t disturb Sir Ernest and Lady Royden.”
Within a month of the move to Hill Bark House, France capitulates and Germany starts to fly missions North from newly-acquired bases in Normandy. The boys are beside themselves with excitement. At the start of each school day there are prayers for the safe-keeping of our brave troops and a swift end to the War. Although not so swift that our unholy adversaries don’t feel the sharp end of our brave Allies’ boot. Amen.
Afternoons are spent on fence repairs, playground drill, gathering wood, erecting air raid shelters. Animosity towards the Germans, and Johnsmith, intensifies.
“Bet you’re German. Go on. Admit it. You’re a spy, aren’t you? Cat got your tongue, has it, Fritz? You don’t fool us. You’re an infiltrator. Go on, lads. Let ‘im ‘ave it.”
Boys have tied him against a tree. They are poking him with rifle butts made from splintered planks. Someone is steadily pouring water onto his head from a high branch.
Johnsmith closes his eyes and grits his teeth. He returns in his mind to the inky deep and fights against the almost overwhelming draught of the sinking vessel; he bites and claws and scrambles vertically to the water’s surface until the boys get bored and leave him.
He cannot shout for help. Instead he rubs one leg against the other until the rope loosens and he steps out from his bonds. Over there are the barley twist chimneys, the sounds of digging and hammering . Johnsmith turns on his heels and runs and runs and runs. To the sea.
The morning had been warm but the wind must have changed direction, bringing with it cold air. The fine mist parts and then closes around him as he runs over close-cropped turf, dodging clumps of gorse that stretch out to pull him into their fragrant, thorny mass.
Sheep and ponies scatter as he runs and runs and runs, hauling cool air into his fevered lungs.
He heads for the cliffs.
The ground rises slightly. A low mechanical roar filling the misty air disorientates him. As the harsh, faltering noise vibrates, louder and louder, he falls to the ground, as if the turf beneath him had been lifted and shaken out like a carpet.
Two more engines join the raucous knell. Beneath the fine, opaque veil, the German Junkers Ju88 crashes onto the east beach of the Dee estuary, and the two Hurricanes return triumphant to Speke. Hurrah!
The next day, an expeditionary party sets out from Hill Bark, despite strict instructions otherwise. Boys scramble down the dunes to scavenge the wreckage. Billy Atkins – who else? – comes back with a length of pipe, pungent with rubber and aviation fuel. Sandpipers and curlews resume their hunt for food in the muddy flats.
Sister Theobald reads aloud from the newspaper,
“The German pilot, wireless operator and rear gunner all escaped miraculously with their lives and have been taken by ambulance to Clatterbridge Hospital. The wreckage will be removed from Thurstaston beach and taken to Hooton Park for examination by military personnel. The wreckage site is being closely guarded by members of the Local Defence Volunteer force and members of the public are instructed to keep away due to unexploded armaments.”
The nights are starting to get colder but there is no sign of any extra bed clothes. A boy further down the seventy bed dorm shouts out in his sleep. Johnsmith tucks his blanket around himself, like a pastry crust, blocking out draughts that chill the scant warm pockets of air. It is a whole night-time’s work.
By the tall diamond paned window, another boy turns; his metal bed frame groans along with him. The harvest moon has gone but tonight’s moon is nonetheless bright and showy, winking at the sleeping boys through the close-clustered tree tops. There are no curtains as yet. It’s girls’ work sewing up the yards and yards of black-out material. Johnsmith watches as light and shade sway across the polished floor boards.
A violent thought slaps him.
Scrabbling to sit up, he observes the shadows of the moonlit branches. Quietly, he tiptoes out of bed and kneels down to trace with his finger moonlight and shadow. The spindly branches criss-cross the back of his hand.
The thought emerges in an explosion of froth and foam and droplets like a terrifying, emerging Kraken.
He knows who he is and he knows where he is from. He does. He does. He does.
Letters and sounds form joyously in his mind, struggling between his new language and his old language. He moulds his mouth round each letter and pushes air through his throat. But he is still mute.
Never mind. There is a way.
The city is very different from what it was even a few months ago. There are military vehicles, lorries loaded with Jeeps, parachutes, barrage balloons. A sense of renewed purpose contrasts strangely with the dereliction all around. For the city has taken quite a hit – the terraced houses, the mansions, the street shelters, offices, factories, warehouses – so many buildings curiously wearing their innards on the outside. People’s homes popped open like seeds bursting out of their husks. A bomb down a chimney. A fire bomb. A blast bomb. What was once so solid now dissolved.
Johnsmith retraces the journey he and the other orphans made that September morning up the hill from the water’s edge. There are klaxons and watch lights on the top of George Henry Lee’s. Bricks, steel and glass disgorge from the curiously intact façade of a cinema. A bath sits two floors up against an exposed papered wall in front of a cold fireplace. The air smells different; less of the sea, more of lime from shattered masonry – lime to cover decaying flesh.
It does not add up. Instant destruction against infinite restoration.
The nuns had told the children that their new home, Hill Bark House, had been minutely taken apart, parts numbered in yellow chalk, catalogued, blue-printed, crated, moved and reassembled – a gargantuan and fantastical task.
He has scrutinised shutters, cupboard doors, pelmets, floor boards, brackets, window frames, panelling, door knobs, corbels, architraves, mantels, curtain poles, shelves, fireplaces, bannisters, treads for their tell-tale yellow chalk marks.
He has learned to open his eyes again. To see shapes and clues. To remember shapes and clues.
He walks nonchalantly the length of the metal railings separating Newsham Park from the pavement. The old orphanage has changed. Now there are military vehicles and ambulances in the playground, red crosses painted on doors. The chapel is at the far end. No-one seems about to apprehend him but he scurries nonetheless behind wheeled laundry baskets on his way to the chapel door.
There has obviously been some attempt to tidy up. Piles of broken slate have been pushed into the corners along with the smaller pieces of rafter and plaster. A cross beam has dropped at one end, forcing the upper end up through the hole in the roof. There is dust everywhere.
It takes a while to find what he is looking for. There are so many shields on the still intact west wall. Sailors’ guilds, maritime insurance companies, city shields, benevolent seafaring saints. His eyes scan and flicker over ships, sails, olive branches, mermaids, crosses, white-crested waves until he finds the one he wants. He stares up at Neptune. Neptune in full swing.
He sits on a pew and stares and remembers.
The light has shifted and the shadows switched place by the time he hears the latch on the chapel door lift. He tries to scurry out of sight but, too late, he has been spotted.
“Boy! Come here!”
Slowly and stiffly he rises and faces the man who has just walked in. He recognises him as the man who owns Hill Bark House, Sir Ernest Royden.
“Come here, I said.”
He approaches the man who is removing his gloves and hat, placing them on a coat stand just inside the door.
“No need to be nervous. What are you doing here?” Sir Ernest Royden peers at the boy’s name, chain-embroidered onto a patch sewn onto his chest. “John Smith. That you?”
The boy shakes his head.
“Oh well, never mind.” He looks so weary; a silent young boy with the wrong name tab in a bombed-out chapel across the water from home is the least of his worries. “I’m early. Used to try and catch Evening Prayer once a week. Hard habit to break I suppose.”
Sir Ernest sits on a pew, unwinding a long scarf. He looks long and hard at the boy.
“Where are you from?” Johnsmith rises from his seat and goes to the shield with Neptune writhing in full force of combat with a sea creature, his left hand raised up, gripping a trident.
Under the shield, he points to each individual letter, G.D.A.N.S.K.
And in the dust on the floor, his mouth twisting, a guttural sound beating in his throat, he writes his name, Piotr.