Counting backwards

The walk back to Whitehaven Mansions was a relatively short one, so we eschewed the offer of a taxi. It was by then 11 o’clock, and the sun was shining on a pleasant early autumn morning, which would normally be my favourite time of the year in England: by now, the leaves on the trees would be starting to turn, a glorious sight.

At that time, however, there were no road-side trees left standing in this part of London. The only signs of greenery were to be found in the vegetable allotments that pock-marked the residents parks in the squares where we walked.

When we reached Clerkenwell, the streets were almost deserted. Many of the houses still showed the effects of the air-raids of a year or so previously, but there were signs that most of them were still inhabited.

“Well, what did you make of all that?” I asked.

“What did I make of what?” Miss Lemon replied. I realised that I would have to be more specific with my questions.

“Was Mr Payne telling us the truth?”

“No,” she said.

“Why do you think that?”

Before she could reply, a piano sounded and the sweet sound of children singing reached our ears. It came from a junior school across the road from where we were walking, and it had a marked effect on me. “I have not heard a sound like that for some years,” I said as I stopped to listen.

It seemed so incongruous to hear such innocence amongst such destruction. Some of these children would be living in a wreck of a home, their fathers away at the War, with nothing much to eat and nowhere to play, except in the rubble; yet there they were, singing their hearts out. Humanity in adversity is an interesting study. and resilience in childhood an even more interesting one.

“I thought that all of London’s children had been evacuated to the country.”

“Not all,” said Miss Lemon. “And many that did leave have since returned.”

“I am surprised that the authorities allowed them back,” I ventured. “This war is far from over.”

“The authorities have enough on their hands. From what I have heard, most of the children were very unhappy in their placements, and could not wait to come home.  Similarly, their hosts were often glad to see the back of them and didn’t even bother reporting their departures.”

The young voices started piping up with ‘One Man went to Mow a Meadow‘:

Five-men four-men three-men two-men one-man
And his dog
Went to mow a meadow

Six men went to mow …

I smiled. “At least now they’ll know what a meadow looks like!”

“I used to sing that as a little girl,” Miss Lemon said unexpectedly. Like Poirot, I could not conceive of her ever having been one. “Yes, my younger sister and I used to sing it for hundreds of verses. It taught me how to count backwards.”

“What did it teach your sister?” I asked knavishly.

“To find another playmate”. We looked at each other. There was a twinkle in her eye. I laughed. Spirits lifted, we set off again and soon reached the haven of the apartment building.