Isobel's war

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Barbed wire
  My mother grew up afraid of Germans. But the first one she actually met was in a Prisoner of War camp on London scrubland known as The Dumps. It was February 1945 and exceptionally mild – one of the warmest on record. And maybe that was why my mother was drawn there, in her outsized summer dress and shoes-to-grow-into. He must have felt it too, that German prisoner. He stood up against the fence, in broken boots and a uniform that fitted the man he used to be. A bright sun shone behind him, his shadow long on the other side of the chicken-wire, resting on the grass.

My mother doesn’t know why she went up to him: perhaps because she couldn’t help surrendering to the warmth of the day; or because it was just the two of them, unwitnessed; or she thought he looked kind, not German. He reached into a pocket as she drew close and held something out to her. What was my mother to do? She knew not to take sweets from strangers, especially Germans – they poisoned them, everyone said. But there’d been rationing longer than she could remember, and the thought of sweetness outweighed the thought of death. And death-by-German-toffee was just another of the hundreds of ways she’d imagined her life might end. My mother looked at him, at the yellow of his tired eyes, and took the sweet. She unwrapped it, ate it, and didn’t die. It was a rare act of kindness in six years of war.
Isobel McMillan

Isobel McMillan just after the war


  These days, when I talk to my mother, it’s as a middle-aged woman to an old one. We both have long pasts – more past than future now. We’re distant enough to look back and see, to find the patterns, to know what made us. My mother always says she is ‘a child of that war’. There have been many in her lifetime, but the one she means began in 1939, when she was two years old, and it shaped everything that came after.

When German air raids began over London, her family was scattered – the children displaced, evacuees seeking refuge from the bombing. My mother’s two older siblings were sent to Yorkshire. She and her sister, Margaret, were given gas masks and a number and taken to Paddington, where they were put on a train full of waving and weeping children. They had jam sandwiches, but were too sick to eat as London and home shrank behind them. The railway ran along the south coast. It was the first time they’d ever seen the sea. It was meant to be blue, but actually black. It was the end of England and the End of the World as they’d known it.

The train stopped in a small Devon town. There were no bombs here. Instead, a line of watchful, nervy women, arms folded over wrap-around aprons, and looking like anything might set them off. They eyed the children – weighing up how much trouble they’d be. Then they pointed at the one they’d take. And that was it.

My mother and Margaret were sent in opposite directions. But the girls cried so much, Mrs Tranter-the-evangelist decided she could save two souls, even if she couldn’t quite feed them. But after weeks of bed-wetting, she pulled them one night from their prayers, and sent them packing. Mrs Nicholson took them instead. She collected evacuees, took their possessions and stashed the children six to a bed. In the darkness, the wall thudded with the sounds of the men she serviced.

Then later, they were moved on again, to a man who liked to bathe my mother – took off her clothes, put her in a tub too close to the fire, and told her not to scream.

Most days, my mother and her sister stood by the sea wall, staring at the waves through barbed wire defences, and waited for the Germans to come. Sometimes, while they waited, they raced snails. That’s how fast time goes when you’re a child and the war never ends. That’s what war is, my mother says: fear and waiting – for the bad, for the worse – both will happen; you don’t know which to whom.

So there they were: my mother, aged three, lost and dazed and trying to be grown up. Margaret, trying to be a sister, a mother and a friend, when actually she was a girl aged seven who just wanted to go home. 
Isobel and Margaret McMillan 1940

Isobel and Margaret McMillan, 1940

  The last time I was in London, my mother was in sombre mood. Margaret had just died. She was the last remaining sibling, and now the family was scattered again, this time forever. My mother talked about the past, about the war and how it made and marked her – her sense of self, of safety, who to trust, and what it takes to survive; how it shaped her relationship with her sister and with me; how much kindness matters. ‘One act, one single act, can off-set so much,’ she said. ‘And you never forget it.’

Then she told me the story I’d heard many times before, of the POW and The Dumps. While Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin were at Yalta, and millions of refugees trailed across the torn-up map of Europe, on the edge of London, a German man gave an English girl a sweet.

Except it wasn’t just a sweet.

The sweet was the excuse.

Maybe he thought this girl, whose name he didn’t know, whose language he didn’t speak, looked old beyond her years. Or that she reminded him of someone, perhaps his daughter. Or that this war would shape her and she’d remember it all her life. And when she talked of the fear and waiting and loss, she might also remember this, and tell of it.

My mother and I chatted over daytime telly – game shows, mostly, with low stakes and nothing much to lose. And as the afternoon drew on, entertainment gave way to the news. The refugee crisis took the headlines: tracking shots of the rubble of Syria. Then desperate parents putting waving, weeping children in a boat, trusting them to the blackness of the sea, and promising they’d see them soon.

I glanced at my mother. She couldn’t take her eyes off the screen, her face frozen – sick, even. I picked up the remote, was about to change channel to the made-up drama with plenty of ad breaks – an elegant murder in an English village that’d be solved in time for tea.

But she stopped me.

‘It’s listing, look… To the right… Going down…,’ and she meant the boat, but could have meant Europe.

On the telly, lines of refugees waited behind barbed wire. The report cut to Germany, where exhausted people were given a number and a dormitory bed. We saw them ask for hand-me-down shoes as they stood in flip-flops in a Berlin winter.

Then David Cameron came on to squabble about Schengen and Dublin and quotas, to ‘battle for Britain,’ he said. My mother hauled herself out of her armchair and shuffled off in slippers. ‘Can’t stand the man. They have faces and names, those quotas, and families, and jobs.’ Then over her shoulder, thrown at the telly, ‘And nothing now’.

When she came back, she was holding a pair of hiking boots, ‘These’ll fit in your luggage, won’t they.’

It wasn’t a question.

My mother handed them to me – thick-soled, reinforced – boots to see you through anything. ‘I hope they feel safe in these.’ She paused. ‘I just hope they feel safe. All of them. It is safe, isn’t it? In Germany?’

When it was time to go, my mother hugged me, clutched me, held me hard. She always had. She grew up afraid of goodbyes: the world was so uncertain, anything could happen. ‘I will see you again?’

‘It’s Berlin.’

‘Soon. Make it soon.’

Then she waved me off. ‘And take care, Jo,’ and she meant not only on the journey back home. She meant of our humanity, our empathy, of the collective heart of Europe.

© Jo McMillan 2020