Grandma’s lucky doll
The sound of the doorbell woke Ella from her unintended snooze. Her head still spinning with blurry images of a boat, she stumbled towards the front door like a sailor who has just come ashore.
‘Happy birthday!’ her daughter and granddaughter echoed in chorus, little Millie holding up a bunch of brightly coloured freesias.
Ella ushered her visitors into the lounge and went to the kitchen for drinks and cake. When she returned, she found Millie playing with the tattered looking doll which usually adorned her chimney breast.
‘Tell me again, Grandma,’ Millie pleaded, ‘the story about your doll?’
Ella sat down and suddenly remembered what she had been dreaming about. It had taken her back to the days when she was Millie’s age, in June 1940. She looked at the doll and let the waves of memories wash over her.
The sun’s rays had brought the temperature in the greenhouse to tropical heights, so Ella was playing with her new doll underneath the elm tree. Dolly was a birthday present from her grandparents and Ella was inseparable from her, only leaving her behind reluctantly during school time. Her mother was thinning grapes inside the vinery. School had closed early that day and Ella realised something was up when her teacher suddenly appeared.
‘Is your mother in the greenhouse, Ella?’ she asked hastily.
Ella nodded dumbly and got up to follow her.
‘Please make your way to the crossroads,’ the teacher shouted into the greenhouse, ‘the police are making an announcement. Hurry!’ She rushed off without waiting for a response.
Ella’ mother rushed after her, shouting over her shoulder:
‘Wait there Ella, I’ll be back very shortly.’
Ella hugged her doll tightly and waited.
It seemed that hours had passed until she came back.
Looking into her mother’s red eyes, Ella whispered: ‘What’s wrong, Mummy?’
Her mother produced a reassuring smile. ‘Nothing to worry about sweetheart. Guess what? We’re going on a boat trip tomorrow, all the way to England!’
‘Really?’ Ella’s eyes brightened up with excitement. She had never left her home before. ‘Can Dolly come too?’
‘Yes, Dolly can come,’ her mother smiled with a sadness in her eyes that Ella couldn’t yet understand.
Ella knew about the war in Europe. She knew that German soldiers might come to Guernsey and that was why they were going to England.
That evening her grandparents stayed for tea, but her grandfather wasn’t telling his usual jokes. Ella couldn’t quite figure out why everyone was so gloomy. She chased a potato around her plate, pretending it was a boat, floating in the gravy-sea. Nobody told her off. She noticed that her mother wasn’t eating at all.
She stopped sailing her potato and voiced a sudden thought: ‘Will we all go to England together?’
It stayed quiet for a moment whilst the adults’ glances flew around the table.
Her father leaned over until his nose nearly touched hers. ‘No love, you must go ahead with Mummy and Pam.’
Ella’s lip began to tremble. ‘But why can’t you come, Daddy? And what about Nan and Pop?’
‘There’s just not enough space on the boats, Ella,’ her grandfather said gently. ‘Mothers and children are going first. That’s how it should be.’
‘But will you come later?’
Ella’s father pushed his half empty plate aside. ‘Yes love, but first we must look after the grapes and the tomatoes.’
‘Where will we go?’ she quizzed further.
‘Do you remember the nice couple who stayed with us last summer,’ her grandmother said, ‘Mr and Mrs Baker?’
Ella nodded. ‘I remember him coughing all the time! That’s why they wanted to spend the summer by the sea.’
‘We sent them a telegram this afternoon,’ her grandmother continued, ‘to see if you can go and stay with them. That would be nice, wouldn’t it?’
‘Time for bed now, Ella,’ her mother said firmly. ‘Tomorrow is going to be a long day and Daddy and I need to talk to Nan and Pop.’
There was no school the following day. Ella’s best friend Beth who lived next door had shouted over the hedge that she was going too, with the school. Ella was relieved that her mother would be coming with her, she felt lucky that she had a baby sister. She found her mother trying to squeeze another jumper in the single suitcase they were allowed to take.
‘We’ll have to wear as many clothes as we can,’ she sighed, wiping a strand of hair from her clammy forehead.
‘But it’s hot outside, Mum!’
‘I know, but it won’t be so hot on the boat, will it? And we don’t know where we’ll be sleeping tonight . . ..’ Her voice trailed away as if she suddenly realised she had said too much.
When they were ready to go Ella was held in a tight embrace by both her grandparents and she squirmed to be released.
‘Be good,’ her grandmother said shakily, ‘and look after Dolly.’
Ella wasn’t used to the sight of adults crying and felt hot tears rolling down her own cheeks, but excitement took over once again when they reached the park. Ella had never seen so many people in one place. Buses were lined up to take people to the harbour, but instead of the promised boat trip there was just a very long wait, after which they returned back home. Feeling hungry, hot and tired, Ella’s enthusiasm deflated like a punctured tyre. Twice more that day they said their farewells and waited in vain, only to return home again.
It wasn’t until the following day that they finally managed to board a ship. Ella stood on the deck of the old freight liner and waved frantically – she had no idea where her father might be, but firmly believed in his promise to wave from somewhere along the coast.
The final farewell had been the worst, as if everyone suddenly knew that this time it was for real, not knowing when they might see each other again.
But now she watched with fascination as the hillside town of St Peter Port turned into a miniature village and the whole island gradually faded into a green line on the horizon. Seagulls followed the boat greedily, their penetrating squeals drowning out some of the sobbing around her. She leaned over the railing to wave at the plane that was circling protectively over the boat, until her mother pulled her back.
‘Come on, I’ve found some seats, let’s go and sit down.’ Pam was crying and the sight of her mother’s puffed up face made Ella grab hold of her mother’s hand.
‘It’ll be alright, Mummy,’ she said confidently. ‘Daddy said he would come to England very soon.’
After a while, Ella’s mother let her roam around the deck. There were so many babies on board that there was a continuous cacophony of cries. The plane stayed close by most of the time, like an eager guard dog.
‘To keep an eye out for the enemy,’ someone told her.
Ella nodded wisely, pretending to understand.
Eventually, England came in sight. When they got closer to Weymouth, she noticed that naval ships were dotted all around them like ducks in a pond.
Jumping up and down with excitement, Ella shouted: ‘Look Mum, some of the sailors are waving at us!’ She ran to the railing and waved back with both her arms.
But her mother had joined a group of women who were talking to a member of the crew. Ella ran back to see what was happening.
‘It’s too late to land,’ her mother explained. ‘We’ll have to stay on board tonight.’
‘But I’m hungry! Do you have any sandwiches left? And where are we going to sleep?’
‘Look,’ her mother said, nodding her head towards Pam who lay curled up on one of the deck seats, covered by a large jumper. ‘Doesn’t that look like fun?’
After eating a few biscuits, Ella and her doll snuggled down underneath her coat. As night fell, the bright moon turned everything to silver. Ella desperately wanted to stay awake, but sank into a deep sleep within minutes.
It was a long time before everybody got off the boat and through the health check the following morning. Ella felt wobbly with hunger by the time they were taken to a town hall where they were greeted by Salvation Army volunteers armed with steaming pots of tea and sweet smelling buns. They put their suitcase in a corner for inspection and gratefully sat down to tea and sandwiches.
Ella had just finished licking the icing sugar of her bun when her mother stood up abruptly, unsuccessfully trying to soothe baby Pam, dark circles showing under her tearful eyes. ‘Let’s go find a taxi. I’ll pick up the suitcase later.’
‘When will we go on the train to Mr and Mrs Baker?’ Ella asked confusedly, before quickly stuffing the entire bun into her mouth.
Her mother sighed deeply. ‘Tomorrow, we’re too tired now. Nan gave me the address of an old friend of hers. We’ll go there and see if we can stay the night.’
Nan’s friend – Mrs Knight – gave them a warm welcome. As she disappeared into the kitchen to put the kettle on, Ella suddenly felt a cold dread invade her mind. When she opened her mouth, her voice squeaked like a baby bird.
‘Mummy, I’ve lost Dolly!’ For the first time since saying goodbye back home, Ella started crying. Soon she became a howling heap of misery, unable to stop her grief convulsing through her body until her mother gently rocked her in a soft embrace.
‘Hush now,’ her mother said soothingly, ‘you’ve been such a good girl so far. Can you be brave a little longer? I promise I’ll try to find Dolly when I go back for our case, but I can’t go back to the boat. You understand that, don’t you?’
Still sobbing, Ella nodded with her face against her mother’s dress. Her adventure had lost its shine. All she wanted was to be back home, with Dolly and the rest of her family.
Later that afternoon, her mother returned empty handed. She hadn’t been able to find their case, nor Ella’s doll. Ella put on a brave face, but stubborn tears kept prickling her eyelids.
Mrs Knight jumped up at a sudden knock on the door.
‘More visitors?’ she said, eyebrows raised high. She returned very quickly. Winking at Ella, she said: ‘You two better go and have a look.’
And there, on the doorstep, was Ella’s father with the missing suitcase. Right behind him was Nan, holding the missing doll.
Screaming with delight, Ella jumped into her father’s arms.
‘Dolly helped us to find you,’ Nan smiled. We were taken to the same hall and saw your suitcase, because Dolly was lying on top of it! Then we guessed you might have gone to find Mrs Knight.’
After many tears, hugs and cups of tea, the story emerged. Ella’s father had gone down to the harbour last night and found out that everyone who wanted to leave was now free to do so. He also learned that a few more boats were scheduled to leave that night. He had raced home to collect Nan and their bags. Pop had decided to stay on a bit longer, to keep an eye on everything.
Ella listened to it all whilst holding her doll closely. She resolved that whatever might happen next, she would never ever let Dolly out of her sight again.
A soft nudge woke Ella from her reverie.
‘Please, Grandma,’ Millie asked again. ‘Tell me what it was like when you and Dolly went to war?’
Ella bent down and held her granddaughter in a tight hug until a giggling Millie wriggled to be released.
‘That’s what it was like, darling,’ she said with a big smile when she finally let go.