by Patricia Hart
I have just finished reading The Shack by William Paul Young: A brilliant, incredibly moving book about a man who found God in a dilapidated Canadian lumber shack. It has moved me to remember our shack – bought by my father in 1938, together with two acres of land, thick with trees and hazelnut bushes – for the princely sum of £50! It resembled so much the shack shown on the cover of the book, it could have been one and the same and I remember it with real affection, for it figured largely in my life during those unforgettable war years.
It was made up of a rudimental kitcken, lounge with a fireplace, and two small bedrooms. Crude, wooden and simple, it provided a safe and wonderful haven for our family during the blitz of 1940. We would escape – if only for a night or the occasional weekend – to avoid the relentless bombing in London.
It was there on the morning of Sunday the 3rd of September 1939 that my Mum, Dad, 11-year-old brother and myself (just sixteen years old) huddled into my Dad’s Vauxhall car to listen to Neville Chamberlain’s speech announcing that we were now “at war with Germany”. It was an awesome announcement – especially as we had grown up being fed by my father who had suffered badly at the hands of the Germans in the first world war that “the only good German was a dean one!”
I recall being urged to climb down a muddy disused well via a rickety old ladder
Immediately there was a siren warning of aircraft overhead – my father reacting with great panic and swearing that “the Germans will be here any minute, we might as well slit our throats!” I don’t remember great fear, but I do recall being urged – with Mum and Brother David – to climb down a muddy disused well via a rickety old ladder: My poor dear mother at the bottom where she complained bitterly of being bitten by mosquitos, my brother David on a higher rung, then I and finally my Dad ‘exploding’ from the top of the well! At that point there was a loud ‘crump’ from a field nearby, with Dad exclaiming “There you are, what did I say?”!
It appeared – and we learned this later – that a German reconnaissance plane was over London and was prevented from ‘spying out the land’ by the barrage balloons that were already up, so I abandoned it’s one bomb in a field nearby in Loxwood – a sleepy Surrey village between Guildford and Horsham: The war was brought so uncomfortably close! Within two weeks I was no longer a schoolgirl and was instead packed off to work in a bank in London, whilst David was evacuated with his school to Torquay in Devon.
Five years passed, during which time we occasionally visited the shack. Petrol was rationed and hard to come by but we escaped when we could, sometimes arriving late at night, having to return very early the next morning. Mum was now working in the bank too, whilst Dad was managing Naig Stores – our off-licence in Sutton. Life was hard: Everything was rationed but there was always a cheerful ‘We’ll get by’ spirit that was the nation through. Never for one moment did we not think that the Nazis would eventually be defeated.
In July 1944 I was twenty-one and Dad offered me the choice of having £21 or a party
In July 1944 I was twenty-one and Dad offered me the choice of having £21 or a party. As I had only ever had one party previously (when I was twelve), I voted for a party. There was little room in the Naig Stores, so it had to be the shack! I knew five boys to ask: Most were overseas in the RAF, although Bryan Turnbull – my good friend since the age of eighteen – was in the RAF stationed in York and had just completed his training in Canada as a bomb-aimer, having gained a commission. He would soon be twenty-one too in September.
In 1944 I was doing voluntary work with the American Red Cross, serving coffee and doughnuts at the Reindeer Officers’ Club off Regent Street, London. There I met several girls including Julia – a beautiful blonde, much sought-after by every male she came across. Well, Julia agreed to come to my party at the shack and offered to bring three ‘swains’: each an American officer intent on marrying her! I invited a few other girls too, suggesting they bring whoever they liked.
Imagine my surprise and delight when they arrived at the shack accompanied by virtually a ‘United Nations of men’; six rather small Free French sailors, Poles, Americans, British, Dutch, as well as Canadians, all intent on ‘partying’ and celebrating my birthday!
There was little preparation for my party, for there was very little food – a few sandwiches, cakes and salads – and as for drink, well, there was even less as Dad – a tee-totaller – wouldn’t allow anything other than soft drinks. Somehow I managed to acquire a small bottle of gin, the object being to create gallons of punch with those soft drinks and fruit. Unfortunately I was to discover later in the afternoon a very drunk Mum, and no sign of my bottle of gin!
In the meantime a very disapproving grandmother glowered “there shouldn't be parties in war-time”!
In the meantime a very disapproving grandmother – my father’s mother – sat nearby under a tree, glowering at me as she made her opinion quite clear that “there shouldn’t be parties in war-time”, and that “the £21 should be sacred”! I remember her as very similar in every way to the cartoonist Giles’ memorable grandmother. Needless to say I ignored her disapproval and spent the time before my guests arrived tucked away in the decrepit old caravan parked behind the shack: There I spent the waiting hours composing rhyming couplets that would be pinned to trees and so create a treasure hunt. I had so little to offer in the way of food and drink but at least there could be entertainment, I reasoned.
It was while I was there, in the caravan, that quite unexpectedly Bryan Turnbull arrived, flourishing a pair of wooden book-ends – his 21st birthday present to me. He had hitch-hiked all the way down from York and couldn’t even stay, as he had to return almost immediately. I so well remember him saying “Pat, it’s time you got married”, and I replied jokily “Yes, I’m waiting for you to ask me!” whereupon, quite solemnly, he said “You’ll never be marrying me, Pat” and then went to speak to my father.
Later, Dad told me that Bryan had confessed to him that none of the crew had much faith in their pilot
Later, Dad told me that Bryan had confessed to him that none of the crew had much faith in their pilot, as they had had a “dicey doo” on their first flight, and that he knew that within a few weeks he would be dead: Such a sad and dreadful premonition that came true, as in September 1944 dear Bryan and the rest of his crew were shot down whilst bombing Njimegan, Holland. I mourn him to this day – a lovely, musical, carefree young man, himself barely twenty-one. He was a brilliant pianist and I well remember the happy Sunday musical evenings spent at his home: his father playing the Jewish harp, his mother quietly knitting, whilst I sang, delighting in the joyful warmth of it all.
I still remember the song If You Ever Went Away that he wrote for me, and I can sing it to this day. Bryan was an only son of older parents, and they were heartbroken at their loss. It was fitting somehow that he was the first guest to come to my party, although he had to leave so soon and I was never to see him again – a dear, brave, unforgettable character.
Well, my many multi-national guests arrived, all happy to be there, and some no doubt thankful to be alive. Julia had arrived with her ‘swains’ – all three intent on ‘winning her hand’, one with red roses. Everyone entered into the party spirit despite a lack of food and drink, and actually seemed to enjoy my treasure hunt, making sense of my rhyming clues.
When evening came we all trudged across cabbage fields to Loxwood village, where we went to the Saturday night hop and met a few more Canadians, later returning with them to the shack and the warmth of a blazing log fire.
To this day I have no idea where or how everyone slept; some in the caraven, some in the bedrooms, many on the floor, and a few up trees no doubt! However I do remember the next morning I noticed, whilst sitting down in the field below the shack and enjoying the fun of it all in the sunshine, my little sixteen-year-old brother and his friends crawling on their stomachs through the long grass, intent on ‘spying’ on us all and ‘learning about life’!
I wonder whether there might be others besides me, who might remember with affection that little shack?
Such memories of all those years ago certainly enrich my life today. My shack has long-since gone and with it the tall trees and hazelnut bushes. In its place are built plebeian, well-to-do houses – Hoxwood is no longer that sleepy village.
I wonder whether there might be others besides me, scattered across the world, who might remember with affection that little shack, which played its part as a haven, bringing people joy and peace for a little while during those wartime years? I do so hope so. I hope, too, that Julia made the right choice.