Hide & Seekby Sally Neary
PART 2: Wartime Revelations – March 1944 – North Yorkshire and Suffolk
The afternoon spring air was cool and the pale sky was tinged with an amber light which was so peculiar to this part of northern England. The tips of the highest fells were still covered in light snow, although in the dale itself the first shoots of spring flowers were just showing through.
The wind hurled across the field where thirty or so caravans lay grouped together. In the field beyond lay a large circus tent already illuminated in readiness for the late afternoon performance.
The door of one the caravans suddenly opened, and a young woman in her early thirties stepped outside. She closed the caravan door and ran across the field, her dark wavy hair streaming behind her in the wind. She reached another caravan and opened the door, shutting it behind her. It was now a quarter to four, and the performance would begin at five o'clock. She still had to get ready and change.
She made a cup of tea while she prepared. She swept up her dark hair in a tight chignon, fixing it well and began to apply her make-up in a well-practised manner. Within ten minutes it was complete and she began to change into her circus outfit. Finally finishing her tea, she checked her reflection in the long mirror. She was small but her figure was slim and shapely as a result of her disciplined life as a circus performer. Her dark wavy hair was now fixed securely, and her brown almond-shaped eyes, fringed with dark lashes, were expertly made-up to emphasise their shape. Her pink sequinned outfit gleamed in the low light and suited her colouring. Yes, she was ready.
She put on her coat, collected her bag and shoes and quickly ran down the caravan steps, locking it behind her. She walked towards the neighbouring field where the circus tent lay and noticed that people were already beginning to swarm towards the tent. It's four thirty, she thought, and the troops are beginning to arrive. I really must hurry.
She walked quickly across the field, weaving in and out of the groups of young men who had now arrived by bus to see the circus performance. She suddenly felt a hand touch her shoulder and a voice say, "Tessie, it's Tessie Martin, isn't it?"
She stopped and froze. Tessie Martin no longer exists, she thought. She turned round fearfully, her heart beating fast, to see who was speaking to her. She recognised the smiling face of a young soldier in his mid thirties. It was John... John Berryfield... his good friend... it had been over ten years...
"John, how good to see you," she said, her fears now subsiding. "What an amazing co-incidence."
"Tessie, I can hardly believe it," he smiled, looking down at her. "It must be ten years since I last saw you in Little Wendleman. How are you? Are you working here at the circus?"
"I am well, thank you John," she replied. "Yes, I am working here on the trapeze, and I also help with animal training. We've done a number of evening performances for the troops at Catterick, and this will be another one. What are you doing up here?"
"I am based at Catterick myself," he replied. I joined up at the beginning of the war, and I have been here for nearly three months. I'll be glad when this wretched war is over, won't you?"
"Oh yes," she replied fervently. "Work has been hard to get, but I've been with Galliano's for eighteen months now, and they are good to me, and so I'll stay with them for as long as I can."
"I didn't expect to see you again after you and Barno parted," he said softly. "We were all so surprised when it happened." He looked at her searchingly.
"Yes, well, sometimes these things just don't work out," she replied cautiously.
"I suppose it's better to part early on, if it isn't working, rather than later," he added, "and at least you didn't have children to worry about. It's always worse for the kids when these things happen."
I mustn't say anything, he musn't know, or he would tell them, she thought. "Yes, of course," she said. I have to ask about him... "How is Barnabas?" she asked, looking up at him.
"Oh, of course you wouldn't know," he replied. "Barno joined the RAF at the beginning of the war and was posted out to Burma in May last year. I am afraid his plane was shot down and he has never been found. It was hoped that he had baled out, and may even be a prisoner of war, but when I last heard around Christmas-time, there was still no news." He looked at her stricken face in concern. "To be honest, there is little hope of him being found now, but his mother, Maria, just won't give up. She believes he is still alive and will eventually come home."
"Oh, how dreadful, I'm so sorry," she said. Her heart was beating heavily – the sudden shock of it – of hearing his name again and hearing such news. She forced herself to speak. "How are the rest of the family – George and Katherine and of course Frederick?"
"George and Katherine are alright, as far as I know," he replied. "George joined the army and Katherine is in the Wrens – both on active service. I believe Frederick will be retiring soon as a professional musician. I expect Maria will be glad of that."
"Yes – John, I really have to go. I am already late. Tell me, are Maria and Frederick still living at the family home in Little Wendleman?"
"Yes, they are both still there," he replied. "Good luck, Tessie, and take care of yourself. I shall look forward to your performance later," he smiled.
She waved, and ran through the crowds towards the circus tent. She felt nauseous, and her head was throbbing. I mustn't think about it now, she thought. I must just concentrate on my performance and then think about it tomorrow. But she already knew what she had to do. It had been over ten years, and it was time to make contact. She simply had to know whether the husband she had loved, and still loved, and the father of her son was alive or dead.
* * *
She walked across the field towards the gate in the afternoon sun. The school bus will have arrived by now, she thought. A young boy of about nine or ten suddenly climbed over the gate and began to run fast towards her, his school satchel swung over his shoulder and his blond hair tumbling over his forehead. "Mommy," he waved towards her. "Slow down, Barney," she called. "What's the hurry?"
"I have some news, Mommy," he called. He ran up to her and hugged her. "Tell me, what is it?" She looked down at his exquisite face, a testimony of his European heritage – his thick hair, the colour of ripe corn and his wide-set brilliantly blue eyes, inherited from his father and Austrian great-grandfather. From her own Spanish blood, his eyes were fringed with thick dark lashes and his soft olive skin was already tanned. He was a stunning child, and he was the one thing which gave her life meaning. Everything that had happened to her... everything she had endured... had been worth it to have him. His blue eyes sparkled.
"We had a reading test today, Mommy, and everyone in class had to read the same passage. Miss Brown gave me top marks and said my reading was... " he hesitated for a moment, "commendable. That's good, isn't it?"
"That's very good, Barney. Well done. It's important to read well, and you have done particularly well because you have to move school so often."
"It's difficult, sometimes," he said, "because I have to catch up with a new class. The main problem is that most of the other children already have their friends when I go to a new school and I feel a bit left out. I am always friendly to them, and they are to me, but they have their own special friends. By the time I get to know anyone quite well, we have to move on."
"I know it's difficult," she replied, "but the circus is my work, and we have to go where it goes. Work is hard to get in wartime – you understand that don't you?"
"Yes, I know – it's alright. I always have you and my friends here in the circus." He paused. "Mommy, do you know what I would like more than anything?"
"What is that, Barney", she asked.
"A monkey – of my own," he replied, his blue eyes shining. "I sometimes help Jinny with the monkeys, and they are so clever. They can do anything. If I had a monkey of my own, it could come with me wherever we go as my playmate and friend. I would love that."
"You're a little too young to have a monkey to look after," she replied. "When you are twelve or thirteen you will be old enough to take responsibility for it, and you can have a monkey then. I promise."
"I will be ten in October, and so that will be in about three years time," he said. "It seems a long time off."
"I am so glad you are doing well at school, Barney," she said, wanting to change the subject. "Your education is so important, and you are a clever boy. If you work hard, you will grow up to be successful."
"Was my father successful, Mommy?" he asked suddenly, looking directly at her.
"Yes, Barney," she said, "your father was very successful. As you know, he was an actor and acted mainly in Shakespeare's plays."
"Could I be an actor?" he asked.
"Maybe, Barney, but it costs a lot of money to go to drama school, and I am not sure that could be possible. We will have to see."
"I think I would love to perform on stage, like I sometimes do in the circus-ring, and have everyone applaud me," he said. "Mommy, is my father really dead?"
The question took her suddenly by surprise and the news of the previous day suddenly overwhelmed her. Her eyes filled with tears and spilled down her cheeks. "Yes, Barney," she whispered. "I believe he is."
Her son looked at her bewildered and upset. He put his arms round her, blinking back his own tears. He had so many questions to ask about the father he had never known, and all he knew was that his father had been an actor in Shakespeare's plays. He hadn't meant to make his mother cry – she meant the world to him. Well, if it upset her to talk about his father, he wouldn't ask. Nine-year-old Barney resolved to never question his mother about his father again.
* * *
The afternoon was grey and the rain fell heavily, beating hard against the windows of the caravan. Tessie poured a cup of tea and placed it on the table beside her. She took from a drawer some writing paper and envelopes and sat down again at the table. What was the date, she thought – she wrote 24th March 1944 and the words "Dear Maria," and then put down her pen to think. What should she say, and where should she start? She sat back and closed her eyes. It had been ten years – just over in fact. Eleven years ago she hadn't even met Barnabas. It seemed impossible to think that so much happened in just eight months.
Barnabas Frederick Martin... he had been the only man she had ever really loved. During that wonderful summer when they met, they had been so happy and Barnabas had been so certain. It didn't matter to him that their backgrounds were so different. She had been nervous when he first took her home to Little Wendleman, a small village near Cherrydale in Suffolk, to meet his family. But his family had been kind to her. His mother, Maria, had welcomed her warmly and she had felt more relaxed than she had expected. His father, Frederick, was a gentle man and she had liked his younger brother, George, and sister Katherine.
As the family home was so spacious, Barnabas' parents had offered them initially the top floor of the house as a small flat until she and Barnabas were able to afford their own home. Barnabas expected that they would need to move near Stratford-on-Avon the following year where he would be acting at the theatre there, and so it made sense to stay with the family until then.
Those first three months were wonderful, she recalled, until... the letter arrived. The date was etched in her mind – 4th February 1934 – the day her world collapsed. When she saw the familiar writing on the envelope she was pleased and took it up to their flat to read after breakfast. She recalled Barnabas had already left as he had a matinee and evening performance that day, and so she was alone. She felt faint when she first read the letter, and read it again and again, somehow hoping that the words on the page would change and the nightmare unfolding before her was not really true. Who could she turn to? There had been no-one. She had fled downstairs to collect Barnabas' two dogs to take them for a walk across the fields. It was freezing, she recalled, and she had walked for miles, until every part of her had felt numb, tears streaming down her cheeks. There was only one thing she could do, but she couldn't bear to think of it. No, there had to be another way.
That evening, she had supper with the family and was barely able to eat. Her mother-in-law, Maria, had looked at her pale drawn face in concern and had asked her if she was feeling unwell. She had withdrawn to their flat at the top of the house to think and to wait for Barnabas to come home.
She remembered hearing him come up the stairs, two at a time and open the door. He had swept her up in his arms as he so often did. Later, as her husband slept beside her, she had lain awake, her heart heavy, but not wanting to sleep. She had wanted to be aware of him, to remember the smell and feel of him, because she knew that tonight would be the last time.
* * *
The rain had cleared, and it was now a fine spring afternoon. Maria Martin looked through the French windows towards the garden where daffodils and early tulips were swaying in the breeze. She would take the dogs for a walk later when she had finished her various tasks. She needed the fresh air.
She was tall and slender, and her fair hair, now streaked with grey, was swept up in an elegant French pleat. Any observer would see that she had once been a beautiful woman and at fifty-nine she had a refined and dignified air about her. Her pale blue eyes were keen and observant and her fair skin was only faintly lined, belying her age. But she felt tired – tired with worry – worry about this dreadful war and where it would end. But most of all, tired of worrying about her son. She could not believe that he was lost to her. She would know inside if he was, she was sure of it. She knew her husband had already lost hope but she would not. She could not.
The door opened. "Mrs Martin, I'm going up to the village to the butcher's for Cook. Is there anything I can get you, Madam?"
"Thank you Ellen, but I will need to go out later to the post-office to post a letter, and I can get anything I need then. I need to finish pricing the items in the garage for the sale of work next week."
"Please don't get yourself too tired, Madam," Ellen looked at her employer in concern. "I will be back in an hour and I can help you finish the pricing up then."
"Thank you, dear, but it shouldn't take too long to finish it. Trying to raise some money for the Red Cross is the least we can do when our troops are fighting for our country."
"I know, Mrs Martin, but you do such a lot, and I wouldn't like to see you make yourself ill. I'll help you when I get back."
After Ellen had left, Maria took her writing case from her bureau and sat down to read again the letter she had received that morning. It had been a complete shock – after ten years, she had believed that they would never hear from Tessie again.
It was still a mystery to her. When her elder son had first brought Tessie home, she had noticed immediately the anxious expression in those lovely brown eyes and had given her an even warmer welcome than she had planned. Barnabas had explained her history – she was the daughter of an English circus owner and Spanish mother, who had now both died, and Tessie now worked as a trapeze artist and animal trainer. She was not only beautiful, but also warm and vibrant and so kind. Animals loved her, and she showed a gentleness with them which drew them to her. She also loved her son – in fact she was just as much in love with him as he was undoubtedly with her, which made her sudden and unexpected disappearance so difficult to comprehend.
Their backgrounds had been so different, of course, but had that really been the problem? She and her husband, Frederick, had been concerned at first that the change in lifestyle would be too much for her to handle. But Maria believed she was a good judge of character, and in her opinion Tessie had strength and grit and had not entered into the marriage lightly.
She, herself, was a mixture of English and European, although her own background had been so different. She was the daughter of an Austrian diplomat and an English woman from a Lincolnshire farming family, and she had grown up in London to a life of privilege. Her life had been blessed – a loving home, a public school education, finishing school, and then a long and happy marriage to Frederick and ultimately their three children.
She had met Frederick Martin at a diplomatic reception with her parents when she was nineteen. He had been a violinist in the orchestra invited to play for the dignitaries present. They had been introduced, and he had invited her and her parents to be his guests at a special performance to be given in London the following week. Her mother had then invited him to tea, and he had gained their approval. He was the most beautiful man she had ever seen, and they had been married the following year when she was just twenty.
Her father had taught her it doesn't matter where you come from, but how far you travel. He had made her aware at a young age that she and her sisters were very fortunate and they must always remember those who had not been as lucky. If you were given so much, of course you should succeed and be happy. But the real heroes were those who had overcome hardship and difficulty to succeed and contribute to life for the benefit of others.
Tessie had overcome much in her life – she had instinctively known that when she met her. There had been a depth of experience there, and Tessie had valued her happiness with Barnabas. Why, then, did she bolt? Had she tried too hard to integrate her new daughter-in-law? Had it all been too daunting for her? The sad thing was that it was evident from her letter that Tessie still cared.
Tessie had left during the worst of the depression in England and they had now been at war for over five years. She had never asked for a penny since she left, and yet the last ten years must have been so difficult for her.
Maria began to write, "My dear Tessie..." She wrote three paragraphs, and then reached for her cheque-book and wrote a cheque. It was a generous sum, but she hoped it would make a difference and help her through the remainder of the war, however long it lasted. She knew her husband wouldn't understand, but she wanted to do this for Barnabas, because she knew that was what he would have wanted.
She placed the letter and cheque in the envelope and stamped it. Tessie had asked her to let her know if and when Barnabas was found, and she would do that. She believed her son would eventually come home, and when he did, she would say nothing to him of Tessie's letter. Tessie clearly didn't want to be found. No, she would never tell him. By the time he comes home, she thought, he will have suffered enough.
To be continued...