Book Title: Pied Piper
Author: Keith Stuart
Publication Date: 1st March 2021
Publisher: LMP - Len Maynard Publishing
Page Length: 176 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction / WWII
In September 1939 the British Government launched Operation Pied Piper. To protect them from the perils of German bombing raids, in three days millions of city children were evacuated - separated from their parents.
This story tells of two families: one whose children leave London and the other which takes them in. We share the ups and downs of their lives, their dramas and tragedies, their stoicism and their optimism. But. unlike many other stories and images about this time, this one unfolds mainly through the eyes of Tom, the father whose children set off, to who knew where, with just a small case and gas mask to see them on their way
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The next few minutes’ thoughts were drowned by the clatter of pots and cutlery and plates but there was an unusual absence of chatter. Alice and Micky always had something to say, correcting and contradicting each other about things they had been doing together and interrupting each other as they shared what they had done alone, each certain the other was being given too much time to tell. But that night they were subdued, quiet.
“Right, you two, hands washed quickly,” and I whisked Micky off his feet towards the sink, trying my darnedest to tickle his ribs and illicit a giggle. Instead, he twisted in my arms and threw his arms round my neck, pressing his warm little cheek against mine and whispered in my ear. “I don’t want to go, Daddy.” I wrapped him in my arms and clasped him so close I wanted him to melt into me so we couldn’t be parted.
“I know, Soldier, but it won’t be for long and you’re a lucky thing getting extra holiday in the country. Wish I was coming.” He could never know how much I meant that. “And you have to look after Alice, too, ’cause you know what she’s like, she won’t want to go either.”
Alice could not have heard the exchange, but she sensed the moment and came running from the sink and crashed into my legs, trying her best to join her hands round my waist and bury her face into my belly. I could feel her shoulders heaving with her sobs and, clutching my son in one arm, I reached down and clasped the back of her head and pressed her closer still. Without looking, my eyes were so tightly shut they hurt, I could see in my mind’s eye her soft, golden hair, tumbling in bubbling curls half-way down her back.
When I dared open my eyes, I found myself instinctively looking straight into Mary’s. She made no sound as tears slid down each side of her face.
“Right, you silly lot. This won’t do. We’ve got tea to eat and lots of getting ready for your adventure. You gotta choose the things you want to take, then everything’s got to be packed, Mummy’s got labels to write. And I…well I’ve got things to do, too.”
“What have you got to do, Daddy?” It was Alice who managed to join me in breaking the moment.
“Now that’s for me to know and you to find out. But you won’t be finding out till tomorrow.”
“Oh Daddy, that’s not fair. That’s teasing and you say we shouldn’t tease.” Micky had eased his cheek from mine and was looking straight at me.
“Yeah, but I’m a grown up and I’m allowed.”
As I lowered Micky to the floor again, I kissed the top of Alice’s head and inhaled as deeply as I could. I needed to lock in the smell of them both. We took our usual places at the table, Mary nearest the stove to fetch and carry, the children either side and opposite each other, and me at the end opposite Mary. It had never been decided that this is how it would be, it just happened. It was a bit like the colour of eyes, or the size of feet being handed down, inherited. It was just the way we did it and it felt right and comfortable. It was the shape of our perfect little family.
Tea was eaten more quietly than usual: the questions the children must have had I suspect could not be asked. They were too big, too difficult to voice because then they would become real issues instead of potential ones. Neither Mary nor I could guess their thoughts for certain and feared we might sow a seed of fear they might not have had if we were to explore the possibilities with them. So, we sat in a cloud of denial. Not lying to each other by saying but doing so by not.
Micky looked the most lost in his thoughts. It wasn’t right that such big things had to be considered by one so small. I daren’t even try to put myself in his place, wonder what I would have felt like at six years old, leaving my Mum and Dad to go off to who knew where, to live with who knew who, for who knew how long. One thought poked itself into my head but, as the possibility of never seeing my little ones again flitted across my thoughts, Micky spoke and a shutter seemingly came down and ‘what ifs’ returned to ‘what now?’
“Can I take Bunners?”
In all the magnitude of the situation, in a mountain of potential consequences, Micky’s troubled, almost tearful fear that he might be separated from his beloved, stuffed and threadbare rabbit broke the silence at last. And I laughed. It was so absurd, so incongruous and had I not laughed I would most certainly have cried.
Keith Stuart (Wadsworth) taught English for 36 years in Hertfordshire schools, the county in which he was born and has lived most of his life. Married with two sons, sport, music and, especially when he retired after sixteen years as a headteacher, travel, have been his passions. Apart from his own reading, reading and guiding students in their writing; composing assemblies; writing reports, discussion and analysis papers, left him with a declared intention to write a book. Pied Piper is ‘it’. Starting life as a warm-up exercise at the Creative Writing Class he joined in Letchworth, it grew into this debut novel.
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