A Mare Is A Kind Of Horse
Gerald H Thornhill
Gerald H Thornhill
The air is still and warm as we trudge along the side of the road. Flies buzz around our heads; in the hedgerows birds chirp and whistle.
“Come on slow coach,” Robert calls glancing back in my direction.
He is several yards in front. His stride strong and sure. I stumble after him; my legs ache, and I am aware we are walking further and further away from home, and tea, and Mummy.
“Let’s go back,” I shout.
“Don’t be daft. We’re nearly there. Stop whining, can’t you?”
Above us the warm sun shines from a blue sky. In the distance the road shimmers and there are pools of water on its surface. Robert says it’s a mirage caused by the heat and that’s what happens when soldiers get lost in the desert without water; they see things that are not really there.
I feel very thirsty.
Robert has picked up a stick and is thrashing at some stinging nettles, bits of these fly past my head. A butterfly flutters up and escapes across a field full of ripe corn.
Robert stops and gazes after it.
“Golly, that was a Red Admiral. Did you see it, Titch?”
I hate being called Titch.
We walk on. Occasionally a car will come in to view and sweep past us, but long before we actually see it Robert will shout, “Ford!” or “Morris Twelve!”
He can tell the make by the sound of the engine.
“Where does this road lead to?” I ask.
“Weston-Super-Mare,” says Robert promptly, his stick thrashing through more weeds as he speaks. “It’s by the sea, in the west. If we kept walking we would come to it. It’s a super place – that’s why it’s called Super Mare, you see? It’s in the west, a super place, and they have horses there. A mare is a kind of horse.”
He pauses with his thrashing stick and waits until I catch up with him. He looks down at me.
“Do you understand?”
“Course I do.”
Robert grins and walks on.
I shout after him: “We’re not going there today, are we?”
“No. I told you,” he says.
After a while he stops again and holds up his arm.
Another car is approaching. I can just hear it although it is out of sight around a bend in the road.
“Quick! Down here,” he says, and runs on to a narrow footpath leading away from the road and overhung by trees. He dives into some long grass and with quick urgent gestures waves me to follow.
“Keep down,” he whispers.
The engine of the car grows louder.
“It’s an M G,” he says quietly, confidently.
A few seconds later a small open topped car speeds past where we lie hiding. I only see it for a few moments but it’s long enough for me to glimpse the driver. He has one arm across the steering wheel and I see three rings on the sleeve of his uniform, his other arm is draped casually across the shoulder of a lady with long hair the colour of the corn in the nearby fields; her head is thrown back and she is laughing and smiling and looking at him the way mummy looks at him when he has said something funny.
The sound of the car fades away and for a few seconds we lay listening to the silence that is only disturbed by the rustling of leaves and the distant drone of an aeroplane.
Robert leaps up and runs down the footpath. His arms are outstretched like wings and the quietness is shattered by his Spitfire noises.
“Come on,” he shouts over his shoulder and I get up and follow.
“That was Daddy,” I say when I catch up with him.
“Wasn’t,” he answers shortly. “This way – ouch! Mind the stinging nettles.”
He pushes through some undergrowth and climbs a style.
“It was Daddy,” I say, “I know it was.”
Robert is sitting on the stile staring down at me but I can’t see his face properly because the sun is directly behind it and each time he moves his head it glints and dazzles my eyes.
“Wasn’t, Titch, just looked like him.”
He jumps down from the stile and lands in front of me with a thump. He grips my shoulder tightly.
“That was not Dad,” he says, this time his tone is fierce and he says his words slowly. “It couldn’t have been. He’s in London for a very important meeting at the Air Ministry. Understand?”
I nod my head as if I understand but I don’t really because I know it was Daddy and Robert will only call me stupid if I argue and he might bash me like he did yesterday when I asked him what Daddy did at the station and he said he couldn’t tell me because it was secret stuff and very ‘hush hush’ and ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’ and `I said he only said that because he didn’t really know and he punched me for calling him a liar.
He lets go of my shoulder and climbs back on to the stile.
“Look, there it is.” He points across the field, “Isn’t it big? Crikey, I never realised they were that big, did you?”
I clamber up beside him and follow his gaze.
The barrage balloon is a few hundred yards away in the next field.
“Golly,” I say. “Are we going up to it, Robert?”
“Yes. Come on.”
He strides off. I climb down and follow. As we get closer I can see the balloon is tethered to the ground. It dips and sways in the gentle breeze; the lines holding it down rub against its bulk making a curious creaking noise. Nearby are several huts painted in dull camouflage colours and several men in RAF uniform sit outside on wooden chairs talking and smoking. The fins of the balloon flap lazily in the sunlight as if warding off flies.
Robert is walking purposefully toward the men. I slow down, stop, and watch as he wriggles through a gap in the wire fence, which surrounds the site. One of the men gets up and stands with hands on hips as Roberts walks up to him. They talk for a few minutes, Robert pointing to the balloon and then in my direction.
Robert waves at me and shouts: “Come on, it’s all right!”
I squeeze through the fence and as I draw closer the man and Robert are both looking up at the balloon, the man is pointing at something underneath and Robert is nodding with his wise look and I know I won’t understand what they are talking about. They both turn to look at me.
“The sergeant says we shouldn’t be here so we’ll have to go in a minute.” Says Robert.
The man looks down at me.
“Are you a German spy?” His voice is deep and he smiles as he speaks.
I look down at the ground and say nothing.
“He doesn’t know what a spy is,” laughs Robert.
“Can he talk?” Asks the man.
“Oh yes,” says Robert knowledgably, “he’s just a bit shy, that’s all. But we’re not spies. Honestly.”
“I might just believe you,” says the man, and he laughs and then kneels down and puts his finger under my chin and lifts my head, “Are you thirsty, sunny Jim?”
I nod my head.
“Would you like some lemonade?”
I nod again.
“Are you sure he can talk?” Says the man, and he laughs again.
The lemonade was fizzy and sweet and cool and I can still taste in in my mouth as walk home. Robert is striding ahead and talking excitedly about the barrage balloon and throwing words over his shoulder he has just learn from the sergeant like ‘altitude’ and ‘pressure conditions’ and ‘atmosphere,’ but just as we turn in to our lane he goes quiet and lets me catch with him.
“Better not tell Mum where we’ve been, or anything,” he says. “Alright?”
“Why not?” I ask.
“She doesn’t like us talking to strangers. She says it can be dangerous.”
“Because…” Robert frowns “…because of the war,” he says.
Mummy is angry when we get home. But she’s more angry with Robert than me.
“Where on earth have you been?” She says, “Look at your brother, he’s exhausted. I won’t have you roaming around the countryside like this. If your Father knew…”
Mummy bends down and picks me up and I can smell her scent as she hugs me and I am so close to her I can see the little lines in the skin around her eyes.
“We saw Daddy.” I say.
Now small furrows have appeared between her eyebrows and for a few seconds the only sound is the ticking of the kitchen clock.
“Wasn’t Dad,” mutters Robert.
“Was,” I say, and I know Robert can’t punch me now we’re home. “He was with a lady, they were in Daddy’s car. She had long hair and they were laughing, but they didn’t see us, did they Robert?”
Robert doesn’t answer, and then Mummy says, “You go up and wash your hands and face, there’s a good little boy. Then it will be teatime.”
Later, at bedtime, after Mummy tucked us up and switched the light out, Robert whispers, “Your are stupid – I told you not to say anything, didn’t I? Now there will be a big row and it’ll be your fault.”
“It was Daddy,” I say.
I wake up with Robert shaking me. He is very excited shouting: “It’s a raid! It’s a raid!” And jumps back onto his own bed and peers through the window. The blackout curtains have been drawn back, the air raid siren is wailing and I can see searchlights raking the night sky. I can hear noises in the distance: thumps, bangs, whistles, dull explosions, and above it all and much closer the roar of aeroplane engines.
I can hear Mummy’s voice downstairs shouting angrily, and Daddy answering quietly, calmly.
“It’s a raid! It’s a raid!” Shouts Robert again. “Look Titch!”
“Daddy’s home.” I say.
“I know.” He answers impatiently. “And they’re having a row – I told you they would.”
I climb up on to the bed beside him and stare through the window. Several searchlights have come together and caught in their light is one of the aeroplanes and all around it puffs of white smoke appear.
“That’s the ack-ack.” Robert says.
Now there are much louder bangs and windows vibrate and rattle. The aeroplane captured in the searchlight is suddenly replaced by a ball of fire and a second later a terrific explosion and for a brief moment the night sky turns to day. Robert jumps up and down.
“They’ve got it! They’ve got it!” He is almost screaming with excitement.
The door opens and a shaft of light shoots into the bedroom.
“Get away from those windows.” Says Daddy sharply.
“The ack-ack just got one, Dad.” Says Robert. “It exploded. We saw it, didn’t we, Titch? I think it was a Junkers.”
Daddy pushes between us and pulls the blackout curtains across.
“Yes, all right son,” he says quietly. “Go downstairs. Get them downstairs,” he says to Mummy who is standing in the doorway. She picks me up and I can see her eyes are all red and puffy.
“Don’t be frightened, Mummy,” I tell her, “I’m not frightened.”
She smiles but I know it’s not a proper smile, only a pretend one, and she says: “Will you look after me, little man?”
As we reach the bottom of the stairs I can see flashes of light coming through the cracks in the blackout curtains in the kitchen but the noise is not so loud now. The sound of the aeroplanes has faded and the occasional bang and rattle seem a long way away. Mummy puts me down just as the telephone bell rings. Short impatient bursts of close-up sound.
Mummy picks up the receiver.
There are urgent scratchy sounds and Mummy hands the telephone to Daddy.
“Yes?” He says and there are more scratchy noises. “Slow down,” he orders, his voice stern. “Calm down! Give me a report.”
“Get the blankets for the shelter, Robert.” Mummy says quietly and Robert pulls a face.
Daddy is asking questions into the telephone: “How weak are the signals? What track? What does the plotting room say?”
More scratching and Daddy is listening intently.
“I see,” his voice is quiet now, “I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”
“Daddy is going to Temple Meads,” I whisper to Robert.
“Temple Meads? Don’t be daft. You don’t think he’s in charge of a railway station, do you?” He’s going to Hill End – it’s an R.A.F. station, see?”
Robert grins and I feel uncomfortable but I don’t know why.
The telephone tinkles as Daddy puts it down.
“Be quiet, you two,” he says, and then to Mummy: “I’ll have to go. The station has been hit. It’s chaos. One of my Waaf officers has been …” His voice trails into silence.
Mummy reaches out and clutches Daddy’s arm and says softly: “Oh darling, that’s terrible, do you know her?”
Daddy’s head hardly moves as he nods. Then he says: “They’ve hit Bristol and gone south. Will you be all right?”
“We’ll manage,” says Mummy. “Will you be back tomorrow?”
Daddy takes Mummy’s hand in his and says: “Yes. Don’t worry. I’ll be back tomorrow. I’m sorry. I’ll have to go.”
The ‘All Clear’ sounds as Daddy’s car crunches down the drive and Mummy says we should go back to bed and thank God it was all over and hoped she would never have to face anything like that again. But when I just asked Robert if that was the worst raid we have ever had he made his silly snorting noise and said ‘course it wasn’t and anyway Mum wasn’t talking about the Jerry’s when she said thank God it was all over. But I can’t see what else Mummy was talking about. I think Robert makes a lot of things up.
I bet a mare isn’t a kind of horse.