A young man weaved through the busy streets of London Finchley. He kept his head bowed low as usual harsh whispers followed him as he made his way through the crowds. He almost breathed a sigh of relief when he pushed open the door to the thankfully empty pharmacy. The bell above the door chimed and a voice called out from the back of shop.
'I'll be with you in a minute.'
He pulled a crumpled list out of his pocket and tried to smooth it out against the counter, until he heard the sharp clicking of heels coming closer.
'Hello, what can I help-'she froze as soon as she saw him her demeanour suddenly became guarded as she eyed him from head to toe. Despite knowing his shirt collar was straight and shirt tucked, her gaze made him feel sloppy and he had to resist straightening his collar again. He could be wearing a crown and she still wouldn't see past the colour of his skin.
'I-' he coughed 'Sister Joan sent me, from Nazareth House, she sent me to collect Sister Margaret's usual prescription as well as- Um she gave me a list.' He held out the list, which she eyed with distain.
Feeling the back of his neck heat up uncomfortably, he placed the list on the counter. She eyed him sternly before picking up the list to examine. 'Nazareth House?' she questioned.
'Fresh off the boat are you?'
'No Miss. I was born here.'
She almost snorted with disbelief. 'Sister Helen usually comes to collect prescriptions.'
'Some of the hospitals are short of staff so a few of the sisters have left to volunteer.'
'And there was no one more suitable to collect these, was there?' she sniped.
'I'm afraid everyone is busy Miss' he told her honestly.
'So it seems.' She scorned. 'That will be £2 and sixpence.'
Placing the money on the counter, which she snatched off, keeping a stern eye on him she collected the medicine on the list, placing it all into a paper bag, before sliding the bag toward him. He took the bag eager to leave.
'Young man I'm not sure how things work in your country, but over here we say thank you.'
He swallowed harshly 'Thank you Miss.' He told her, unable to say anything more before walking out of the store. Sighing, he made his way back through the busy streets.
It was a fair walk back to Nazareth house but once he found himself back in familiar territory he felt he could walk straighter. He knew the people on these streets as well as he knew himself.
He grinned when he saw the children laughing, swinging around the lamppost using skipping ropes they had lashed together.
'Hello Peter!' one of them shouted.
'Jeremy!' he hollered back grinning.
'You done with your chores yet?!'
'Just a few odd jobs still to go.' Peter replied gesturing to the bag under his arm. 'I'll catch you guys later!' he carried on walking until he reached a familiar building. Nazareth house had certainly seen better days despite the best efforts of the nuns who called it home.
Nazareth House was an orphanage and sister house for London Finchley. There were currently twelve children in the care of four sisters. (Well three really Sister Margaret was no longer able to take care of herself never mind anybody else.) There were nine girls and three boys, including peter.
Peter hopped up the steps and shoved hard at the old stiff door with his shoulder.
'Sister Joan!' he called out to the head nun of Nazareth house.
It did not take long for her to appear. Looking older than her years Sister Joan was a kind woman who took on responsibilities often larger than her shoulders. None the less she greeted Peter with a smile. 'Peter did you get everything on the list?'
'I think so Sister, but I think that pharmacist was ready to lynch me if I stayed much longer to check.' He handed her the bag which she took frowning.
'I'm sorry Peter I did not imagine Mrs Tishelle would be hostile.'
'No more so than anyone else.' He muttered. 'But I don't think I would be welcome back there.'
Sister Joan sighed 'Well none the less Peter, thank you. Your help has been indispensible these past few months.'
'It's really no bother sister.' Peter mumbled, rubbing the back of his neck. It was true that with many of the sisters called away he had taken up extra chores in their absence. But as eldest he felt it was his duty, he was fourteen after all, nearly a man.
'Still, praise where praise is due Peter.' She told him with a smile. 'I better see to Sister Margaret, before she starts looking for me.' She left in hurriedly in attempt to find the old sister before she became agitated.
Peter turned hoping to catch Jeremy and a couple of the lads. When a screech made him Jump, spinning around he spotted Sister Bertha storming through the halls. Sister Bertha was not a woman you wanted to cross, with a fuse as short as her stature she didn't exactly have the virtue of patience.
Unfortunately for Peter she spotted him before he could escape.
'Where is he?!' she thundered.
There were only two boys other than Peter and there was only one who dared to test the Hun nun.
'Edmund?' he asked cautiously.
'Yes Edmund!' she snapped. 'Who else would have the gall to steal my biscuits!' she continued to screech.
'I don't where Edmund is Sister.' Peter swore. 'I've been out on errands all morning.'
'He better hope I don't catch him. Sister Joan may be soft hearted. But I know that what boy needs is a good thrashing.' She raved, before storming off in search of her nemesis.
Peter let out the breath he was holding. If Edmund continued pushing his luck, Sister Joan will no longer be able to protect him.
He turned again, hand on the door handle when-
Well looks like I'll see Jeremy tomorrow Peter thought wryly, although this interruption was far more welcome.
'Lu!' he called, spying the bright blonde hair on the upstairs landing. The girl beamed down at him and began to trundle downstairs. Her leg braces squeaking as she went. Out of all the children at Nazareth house, Lucy was his hands down favourite. All the other children who had come through these doors had all been wary of him at first, and sure most of them warmed up to him eventually, Lucy an exception, he could remember her asking him with watery blue eyes to read her a story on the very first night she stayed here. They had been fast friends ever since.
She stumbled slightly on the next step and Peter rushed forward to catch her, only for her to right herself and huff 'I don't need help.' as she continued unaided down the stairs. Lucy was a kind girl who all the sisters adored (bar Sister Bertha, but there really was no pleasing her.)
When she reached him she threw her arms around him and muttered darkly into his shirt 'You have to save me from Susan.'
'LU!' he guffawed. 'Is she using you as a life-size doll again?'
'Worse' she told him seriously. 'She's trying to get me to practice Latin again.'
'The nerve of her.'
Lucy giggled. 'It's just so boring.' She tried to reason.
'You know Susan just trying to help the only way she knows how.' Peter told her 'It will help in future.'
Susan was Peter's oldest friend; they had known each other since Susan was five and had found a bond with each other. Being the only two children who looked different to all the others they shared an understanding. Whereas Peter was dark of skin and hair Susan was of Vietnamese decent. (Not Chinese as she loathed reminding people.) Neither fit the ideal of an average British family, hence why the pair were the oldest children of Nazareth house.
Susan was a clever girl, although she struggled with school work, and very pretty with long dark hair that never seemed to fall out of place. She could be terribly bossy but it was usually done with the best of intentions, so was easier to forgive.
'I'll try Peter.' Lucy told him earnestly.
'At a girl! Come on let's see if there's anything good on the wireless.' She nodded following him to the small lounge. Unfortunately for Peter as soon as he opened the door a trap was sprung.
A bucket of water that had been left on precariously just above the door tumbled down clunking him on the head and soaking him through to the skin. He growled, shaking his arms in attempt to somewhat dry himself.
'Peter, are you alright?' Lucy asked worriedly, having been behind Peter she had been spared the brunt of it, with only a few splashes of water on her skirt.
'I'm fine Lu.' He muttered pushing his dripping wet hair back.
'What's going on?' A voice called from behind them. 'Oh Peter you're dripping water everywhere!' Susan scolded.
'Edmund's been very busy today.' That was all the explanation he needed to give her.
She huffed 'Go get changed, Lucy and I will clear this up.' She ordered before marching off, leaving Lucy no choice but to scamper after her.
Peter huffed and was about to do just as Susan ordered, when he spied something on the floor. Kneeling down he examined it more carefully, just as he thought biscuit crumbs.
'I know your there Edmund.' He called out to the seemingly empty room. 'You would never miss the chance to watch one of your horrible tricks in action.' Peter stalked the room peeking around the curtains and under the sofa. 'If that had fallen on Sister Margaret you could have really hurt her.' There was no sign of the freckled boy and Peter was running out of places to check. There was only the dresser left, throwing open the bottom cabinets he was disappointed to find them empty.
Slamming the doors shut, Peter stormed off. If only he had looked up he would have seen the freckled boy munching away on the last digestive on his perch on top of the large cabinet, wearing a triumphant smirk.
'They never look up.' He congratulated himself internally. Silently he climbed down. Darting to the window he pushed it open, jumping out before Susan and Lucy arrived back with a mop. He landed with cat like grace, keeping low as to avoid being seen from any of the windows he scurried towards the drain pipe. It was old a leaking but could still support his weight as he climbed pulling himself onto the roof.
The roof of Nazareth house was Edmund's favourite place. There was no where that he felt safer, he was untouchable. He traipsed carefully, minding the lose roof tiles that would give out under foot. From here he could see all across the rooftops of London. He would miss this place terribly when he would inevitably grow too big for the drain pipe to support his weight. He skipped across some lose tiles he knew were lose, relishing in the light summer breeze on his skin. London Summers were always stuffy, he thought, Peter should have appreciated his efforts to cool him down. The look on the older boys face was priceless, the only way it could have been better was if it was Susan, the girl was far too uptight for her own good.
He was just admiring the view when he could hear faint murmurs from one of the dormers just below. Tiptoeing he perched himself on the side of dormer as not be seen, but could still hear the shrill voice of Sister Bertha. 'I WILL NOT STAND FOR THIS ANY LONGER!'
'Sister please calm yourself.' He could hear Sister Joan command.
'NO! That boy is a menace! And he needs to be dealt with. After all even the bible says "Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die." Edmund Flinched.
'A beating is the last thing Edmund needs.' Sister Joan snapped. 'He has been through enough of that already, dear lord he still bears the scars.' Edmunds hand unconsciously wrapped around himself, brushing against his back where under the shirt lay a plethora of scars. 'What he needs is compassion and understanding.'
'Well, he won't get any in jail, because mark my words that's where he will be going. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.'
'Edmund is a complicated-' Sister Bertha snorted loudly 'child, but a child none the less and no harm will come to him when he is under my care.'
'He might not be in your care for long. We all know he's not right in the head. He never speaks. Just stares. It's unnerving. I reckon he might be touched in the head.'
There was a creak of some sorts and Edmund cursed not being able to see what was happening. When a voice Edmund knew to be the youngest Sister, Mary-Ann 'Oh, my apologises Sisters but Sister Margaret is trying to leave again, says she has to get to the children ready for school?'
'It's Saturday' Sister Bertha remarked dryly.
'I know. I tried to tell her but she is insisting, she's already rounded up some of the little ones.'
'Sister Bertha, can you deal with this?'
'As you command, Mother Superior.' Came the sarcastic response and the heavy foot falls signified the temperamental nuns departure.
'I'm really am sorry Sister, I didn't mean to eavesdrop but-'
'But none the less you would like to offer your opinion on the topic of Edmund.' Sister Joan remarked getting straight to the point.
'Yes Sister, Edmund is- a different child to any I have dealt with before...'
'Are you referring to the fact he does not speak?'
'When Edmund first came to us he suffered with a severe stammer, over time it became more manageable. However, eighteen months ago his parents were granted custody of Edmund, despite my protests. Over a year later I get a letter that Edmund had been admitted to hospital and his father had been arrest for assaulting Edmund and his mother.' He could hear Sister Joan sigh. 'Edmund hasn't spoken a word to anyone since his return. I was hopeful that he would reconnect with Peter and Susan but he refuses. He has isolated himself from everyone.'
'Do you think he will speak again Sister?' The question threw Edmund off guard; his vow of silence had definitely been a conscious choice on his part all those months ago. A horrible thought that he simply was no longer able made him shiver. 'No!' he shook himself it was better this way, easier, than stuttering his way through life. 'Who needs words anyway?' He consoled himself 'If I want something I'll just take it, permission is for losers anyway.'
So lost in his musings he missed Sister Joan's reply, not that he cared what she had to say anyway. No one here was worth the effort of speaking to anyway, not after they had turned their backs on him. 'Only those who see me for the wonder I so clearly am will be worth trying to speak to.'
He traipsed back across the roof, plotting, the one down side about being mute was that so much more creativity had to go into getting his point across. He stopped and pondered for a moment.
'I wonder what I should put in the girls dormitory next a spider or a rat?'
The evening went like any other all the residents sat to eat dinner at five o'clock sharp, sadly with sugar rationed so strictly due to the war; no one in Nazareth house had enjoyed any kind of dessert in some time. Excluding Sister Bertha who kept treat supplies of her own... and Edmund who frequently raided said stash.
When it became it time for the children to get ready for bed Susan and Lucy said goodnight to Peter. And made their way to their dormitories, the boys were lucky thought Susan despite having a much smaller room they only had to share between three, whilst all nine of the girls were forced to the same dorm.
It was a long room lined with five bunk beds on the one side. All but one of the bunks had two chests stacked neatly on top of one another at the foot of the beds, one for each girl who resided there, in which contained all of their belongings. It was a very soul less room. No wallpaper or colour of any kind on the wall. Lucy had attempted to draw some pictures to add some colour but Sister Bertha had taken them away, said they cluttered up the room.
It was a far cry from the room Susan once had. Every year it became harder to remember but she could always recall the beautiful floral wallpaper in her old room back home in Singapore. As well her dolls, her beautiful dolls she could remember spending hours lovingly brushing their hair.
'Could it really have been almost ten years?' She thought in disbelief. She could still remember her parents her mother had been a beautiful woman from Vietnam, kind, and humble. She used to sing songs Susan could only ever remember the tune to. Her father had been a businessman man from London, he was harder to recall than her mother she supposed he must have travelled a lot for his work. She remembered he would always have a gift ready for her when he came back.
She couldn't remember why they were in Britain that day she assumed that they were there for her father's work but she couldn't be sure. All she remembered was sitting in the back of the car, dressed in her little petticoat, as she was unused to the colder British climate. She remembered her mother turning round, telling her to pull up one of long socks that had slipped and bunched around her ankle. She never saw the other car coming, having bent down to straighten and pull the loose sock when she was glass suddenly showered over her. Her parents had been killed instantly but their five year old daughter remained, with only scratches. She couldn't remember crying then instead thinking rather childishly that her parents would be cross with the tears in her new petticoat.
There was no use dwelling on the past though, she scolded herself. Fixing her nightgown she turned to Lucy to help her with hers straightening out the girls collar, despite the younger girls protest. 'It will just go wonky when I sleep.'
Honestly the younger girl had no sense of decorum. While Susan adored Lucy like a sister, the younger girl's sloppiness drove Susan around the bend.
After seeing to Lucy she climbed up to her bunk, the old mattress squeaking in protest. She should have asked Peter to borrow his torch to do some light reading, she mused but it was too late now. From the light snores below Lucy had already drifted off to sleep, much to Susan's envy. The girl was just like a windup toy; she spent all day on the go and as soon as night fell she dropped off to sleep.
Susan always had difficulty falling asleep as had Edmund. Once upon a time the pair of them used to sneak around under the veil of darkness to their little hideaway they had made out of spare cushions and blankets down in the basement, complete with a Christmas light she suspected Ed had stolen it had seemed so magical at the time. Telling stories until they both drifted to sleep and sneaking back at the crack of dawn so no one would know.
She did not know what had changed but when Edmund returned he was far from the sweet boy she had once known. He glared openly at everyone and like a feral cat his back would almost arch before he lashed out at anyone who got to close.
She sighed turning slowly so the bed didn't squeak so loudly. There is no point dwelling on the past. Eventually she must have drifted asleep, but her peace was shattered. The air raid siren blared in the night. Huffing she threw the covers off her and climbed down, grabbing her nightgown from where it hung off the bed frame. This routine had become almost mundane, well as mundane as a bomb threat could get. Most of the girls were well versed in getting up in the middle of the night they did so still practically asleep.
Susan handed Lucy her dressing gown, the younger girl still yawning, her blonde hair sticking up wildly in all directions. Pulling a bag of her most prized possessions out of trunk she kept ready to go on air raids. Susan helped Lucy carry her blanket, she knew any moment now Peter would skid into the room, his most prized Three Musketeer novels under one arm and a torch in the other hand.
As if on cue Peter skidded in the girls' dorm, having sprinted from the boys dorm. Passing Susan his books, while he bent down to pick up Lucy, as her leg braces took too long to put on for a hasty exit. The three of them followed the rest of children down to the basement. Some of the younger girls whimpering when the ground shook as the bombs fell across London.
Just ahead of them Susan could see Sister Joan escorting a disorientated Sister Margaret to their make shift shelter.
The basement was damp, despite the sand bags which were stacked floor to ceiling against the walls.
Sister Mary-Ann was already there, clipboard in hand, ticking off the names of the children as they entered. Sister Bertha was there as well screeching hurry up.
Placing Lucy on one of the few cots, peter slumped against the wall of sand bags, clearly tired. Susan sat next to him placing her bags and blankets on the ground as she began to sort through them.
'Blimey, Su how much stuff did you bring?' Peter asked incredulously.
'Only the essentials.' She told him haughtily. 'Honestly Peter, if you had an ounce of sense you would bring something other than books that you've read a hundred times.' She passed him a blanket which he took sheepishly. Handing Lucy a blanket and her prized stuff toy dog ('Toto!') she huffed 'Honestly would it kill you two to be a little more organised?'
The basement soon felt cramped as it filled making it almost impossible to manoeuvre without stepping on someone.
'Sister Mary has everyone been accounted for?' asked Sister Joan.
Checking her sheet twice the Sister replied 'Yes-No! No Sister, Edmund is not here!'
Another BOOM and the earth trembled, sending dust trapped in the ceiling cascading down on them. 'That must have been in their street.' Susan realised with horror. She barely had time to react when Peter shot passed her never looking back even as she screamed his name.
Peter sprinted through the halls, heart pounding in his ears as he searched high and low for the boy. Throwing open every door he passed screaming the boys name. He almost slipped when the ground shook hard again and a terrifying boom almost made his ears ring.
He almost carried on running, when he spotted a foot peeking out from behind the curtain. Out of sheer fear and anger Peter grabbed the boy by the ankle and yanked hard. Pulling the boy of the windowsill and sending him crashing to the ground. 'What the hell do you think you're playing at!?' he bellowed at him yanking the boy to his feet, grabbing Ed's arm he ran dragging the boy behind him, barely noticing him stumble trying to keep up with his shorter legs.
There was a thunderous bang, and entire hallway was illuminated in a fiery burst of light. The windows shattered inwards a piece of glass narrowly missing Peter's eye as it cut across the bridge of his nose.
Peter practically threw Edmund down into the basement, as he scrambled with shaking hands to lock the door.
Edmund had barely made it down the stairs, when a heavy hand clamped down on his shoulder. He didn't even have to turn to know whose it was, Sister Bertha was seething as she dug her nails into his shoulder. 'JUST WHAT WAS GOING ON IN THAT TINY LITTLE BRAIN OF YOURS?!' She screeched.
'Peter are you alright?' Sister Joan inquired softly helping the shaking Peter sit on her cot, carefully examining the cut on his nose and for checking for any more serious injuries. 'I'm fine Sister.' He assured her with a shaky smile.
The next day they would emerge to find the three houses just opposite, had been reduced to nothing but burning rumble. The occupants brought out on stretchers, a thin sheet covering them from head to toe.
It came as almost a relief to Sister Joan when a letter arrived on her desk, a new government program; all children from major cities were to be evacuated to the countryside. Last night was a horrifying foray into the realities of this war; the children simply were not safe here.
She wrote immediately to the Sister house, praying for a speedy reply. However, when the reply came the reply was far from a relief. The Sister house only had placements for eight children. That left four children without a safe home.
Pinching her forehead in a futile attempt to prevent a migraine, her elbow knocked over a pile of old letters she had neglected to sort. Sighing she bent down to pick them up when she paused, spying a letter from an old friend. An idea sprung to mind and hurriedly she reached for her pen.