Chapters Two/three pages 31 - 35
As the war displaced more and more people, and pushed relentlessly on into 1944, V1 flying bomb attacks started against Britain. Heavy casualties were occurring and the raids prompted another mass evacuation from London.
A very sombre Ruby slid quietly into the New Year. Today, fearfully crossing the open space of Wandsworth Common with her brothers, quite sure that a V1 would spot them, dive and kill them, Ruby needed the comfort of her navy-blue siren suit. It always made her feel snuggly and safe. Once it had swamped her small frame, but although she was still small for a seven year old, it was now a tight fit. Stubbornly, she continued to wear it at every opportunity.
Dad’s allotment was over the other side of the common, quite near to Wandsworth prison. From where they lived, in a turning off the Northcote Road street market, it was a fifteen minute run across the common. Each autumn, they would cross the main road to collect conkers from trees partly hiding the prison walls. Then, clutching their precious loads, the three children would stand solemnly in a row, in front of the vast oak doors that led into the prison, with more often than not, Ted telling Ruby scary tales of murderers and spies.
Every Sunday morning they went to pick vegetables. With Uncle Stan overseas in the Navy, his wife Auntie Hilda always joined the Watsons for Sunday lunch. There were certainly plenty of vegetables, but not much else these days. The ‘war on’ was in full swing. Jack’s light engineering works manufactured small parts for Spitfires, so being in a reserved occupation, he was around to get good use of their allotment.
On this warm day in late summer, the sunshine and birds didn’t seem to mind this awful war being
nearly into its fifth year. Ruby, running hard across the common, barely keeping up with her bigger brothers, had got very hot in her heavy siren-suit, intended for trips down into the cold, dank,
shelters. She stripped it off and sat in her vest and knickers making daisy chains whilst Ted and Sid struggled with reluctant old
potatoes and the last few runner beans. She kept an eye on the sky, as did most seven-year olds, she knew all
about the consequences of the drone of aircraft and V 1’s. Living so near to both Battersea power station and Clapham Junction railway station, made their home a prime target, which at the moment was sporting a tarpaulin stretched over a burnt-out roof, the result of a stray incendiary bomb.
The boys seemed to be taking for ever to fill the baskets. Ruby relaxed onto her back, the tall
grass brushing her face. Turning a little to the left, just a few inches away, a huge bumble bee was collecting honey from a clover flower. Fascinated, she watched it carefully open each tiny floret
with its back legs. The
bee’s busy hum was friendlier than the sound of ‘buzz-bombs’, the name used by everyone for the menacing V 1 flying-bombs. The grass smelt hot and sweet with some of the longer spears of couch grass still clutching beads of dew at the place where they joined the main stem.
Ruby broke off a long blade of grass and turning onto her side, prodded the drops. Sid had tried explaining surface tension, but she hadn’t really understood.
She froze. Her fine-tuned young ears had caught the unmistakable sound of an approaching flying-bomb.
“We’ve got to go!” Ruby screamed, as the air-raid warning began winding up to its full whine. Snatching her beloved siren-suit she hared across the common.
“Lay down. Ruby. Lay down.” Both brothers were shouting.
The sound was getting ominously close when Ruby felt the weight of Sid’s body
covering hers. The bomb’s motor-bike like noise had stopped. Shaking with terror, she listened with her brothers to the awful silence which they all knew could only mean that the bomb was coming down nearby. When the explosion came, Ruby’s brain had switched off and she hardly heard it.
The boys seemed unmoved but to Ruby the incident was terrifying. Even the ringing sounds from the emergency services intensified her fears. She began to cry. Didn’t they care?
“Come on, Mouse,” Sid said, softly. “It’s all over. Help us gather the scattered goodies.” But, Ruby
couldn’t move. Her legs seemed disconnected from her body. War was a terrible thing. It killed people. She didn’t want to be dead. Dying didn’t sound very nice; cold and uncomfortable.
Shivering, even as the
hot sun rose to its peak, she finally pulled her siren-suit back on, asking Sid to button it for her.
“You dope. You’ll melt in there.”
Ruby felt safe for a moment, pushing her hand into Sid’s as they walked home. But, looking up at his reassuring smile gave her little relief. What if Sid died in an air-raid? Or, Mum. . . . Dad . . . Ted . . . ? The safe feeling melted. Suppose they were all killed?
Ruby sprang from the breakfast table with such force that her chair clattered backwards; skidded across the
linoleum and crashed into cupboards behind it.
“Why now? Why wait till now?” she shouted at her mother. “How could you? Today of all days. You know what this job means to me. Why NOW!”
Connie remained silent, as Ruby banged her way around the kitchen, bewildered by the devastating revelation that Connie was not her mother.
Mum’s not my mother, began to penetrate her jumbled thoughts.
“Do you resent me coming into this family?” she whispered in a small defeated voice.
“Never,” Connie protested her face crumpling. Ruby watched, and for a moment hardly knew this woman who turned back to the stove, to rescue burning scrambled eggs.
Confused by Connie’s seemingly callous attitude, Ruby felt numb.
Just moments ago she’d bounced in for breakfast looking forward to her first day at work, a job
she had coveted for months. Now all she could think of was fury.
Had all this come out such a short while ago?
“Starting work is an important moment in your life,” Connie had said, her voice stilted and unsure ‘There’s something you should know.”
Ruby had only been half listening as she moved around the kitchen, looking for the things that she
was putting ready to take with her. “What did you say, Mum?”
“You’re an orphan.”
“Who are you talking about?” Ruby’s heart missed a beat as she looked straight into her mother’s face. The truth was there. “Me?”
It seemed to Ruby that something inside her mother had opened as Connie rushed out more
words. Meaningless at first, but as they tumbled from Connie’s lips, gained more significance giving them the power to stun Ruby.
“I took you in to live with Ted, Sid and me, after your mother was killed in an air raid in
“You’re my mother.”
“No Ruby, I’m not.”
“My mother was killed in the last war?”
“You were only three. Your dad had already been lost; he never made it back from Dunkirk.”
Ruby could feel her temper brewing, she tried swallowing the blind rage that was about to consume her. “Dad’s not . . .?” This was all too much. Why was Connie doing this to her?
“I always hoped that when I married Jack we’d be one big happy family and for years I’ve just wanted the past to be forgotten. I’m so sorry, I should have told you this before, but the time . . . well - it never seemed right . . .”
“And you think it is now?”
‘You’rean orphan!’ The words went round and round in Ruby’s head. In one short, devastating sentence, she had learned that she was not the person she thought she was. For seventeen years she’d been living a lie. The woman weeping in front of her was not her mother. The man she could hear whistling on the stairs was not her father. She, Ruby Watson, did not exist; she was nothing.
Now, at last the full impact of Connie’s revelation hit home and Ruby burst into tears. Connie’s arms went round her. “I’m so sorry, Ruby. It was never meant to be like this.”
“Whatever’s going on?” Jack came striding into the kitchen, his hands trying to fix an unwilling stud into a wilful stiff collar. He bent to retrieve the upended chair then stood hesitating in the centre of the room. “You told her then?”
“I can’t go to work today. I can’t think!” Ruby dried her eyes. Just minutes ago she’d been looking forward so much to working at the film processing laboratory, a job she’d coveted for months.
“But sweetheart, your job! You’ll lose it if you can’t even make the first day!” Her mother was
fixing Jack’s collar, she seemed calmer since it had all spilled out.Stud fixed, Jack cleared his throat nervously, your mother’s right, it’s your dream job,
isn’t it?”“You know it is, Dad.” Hesitating, she thought but he’s not my dad! Taking a deep breath, she
stumbled on. “All those Saturdays on the photographic counter were supposed to count towards it.” Ruby looked wildly round the room. “Did I waste a year?”
“It’ll work out.”
“Today was supposed to be a beginning.” Ruby’s hot temper rose again with an uncontrollable urge to hurt the woman that she loved the most. At first stunned from the revelation her mother had made, Ruby’s mind was coming alive again as it trawled through years of memories, frantic for a link to her past.
“Uncle Stan told me you never loved Dad.” She looked away guiltily as she voiced the hurtful rumour. “You just used him to get a roof over your head.”
“That’s not true.” Ruby watched as Connie glanced towards Jack, now sitting stone-faced at the kitchen table. “How could Stan know anyway? He was far away with the Navy when all this was going on. You’d have been put in a home if I hadn’t taken you in!” Ruby winced; she had baited her mother into voicing spiteful words.
“I think we should all calm down,” Jack got up and valiantly attempted to hug them
both. Ruby read the helplessness in his face; there it was again, something still hidden.
Finding out suddenly that the couple who had brought her up were not her parents seemed
tantamount to betrayal, the mystery surrounding it adding culpability. Without another word she went upstairs and flung herself onto her bed. This morning’s biting words still churning through her head.
“You’re an orphan - your mother was killed in an air raid - you were only three - Dad already lost - never made it back from Dunkirk.”