On Saturday morning Delia came downstairs to find Nain already in the kitchen, stirring a pot of porridge over the stove.
'Good morning babi! Are you hungry?'
'Very, very hungry'.
Porridge at Nain's was the best.
Not because she got to have extra sugar on it like she had at home yesterday (Nain only let her have the tiniest drizzle of honey or golden syrup over the top and no sugar at all), but because it was bright pink.
Nain grew raspberries and strawberries and red currants in her garden, and during the summer she would pick them early in the morning and sprinkle them straight into the cooking porridge to let their juice soak into the oats. It turned them the prettiest colour, so you could almost believe you were eating some sort of pudding instead of normal breakfast. Even in winter when there was no fruit growing, they still got to have pink porridge, because Nain would cook and store anything that she couldn't eat right away in jars. Fresh fruit tasted best, but bottled made a deeper shade of pink, and made all of the porridge taste fruitier instead of just the bits where the berry lumps were, so both were good.
Delia set the table while Nain finished cooking, laying out spoons and cups, and then finding her own favourite bowl (yellow rimmed with a picture of a duck and a hen inside, the same one she'd used on visits since she was old enough to hold her own spoon), and Nain's (white with little blue flowers). They had perfected their routine over many visits, and by the time Delia had clambered up into her chair, Nain was already ladling porridge into their bowls and pouring a glass of milk for her.
The porridge looked delicious, delicate curls of steam twisting up from its colourful surface, but she didn't begin to eat.
She sat still and watched Nain expectantly as she finished dishing up her own porridge, then took the empty pot away.
Once it had been put to soak in the sink, the moment Delia had been waiting for arrived.
Nain went to a cupboard and took out the golden syrup tin with great ceremony. She wielded a spoon as if it was a magic wand, flourishing it in the air before using it to prize off the sticky lid.
'Now then, what shall we have today? A 'D' for Delia? A heart? A moon? Shall we really stretch my artistic skills and attempt a flower?'
This was the best best part about Nain's porridge. She didn't let Delia have very much syrup on it, but she did drizzle it into a new interesting design each time.
Delia pondered seriously, gazing down at her bowl for inspiration.
'Hmm… maybe a clock face, like Silky's clock from the book last night? Or the fairy baby? Or… oh, I can't choose!'
'Alright, a surprise then! You watch very carefully and see if you can guess what it is'.
Nain loaded her spoon just half full of syrup - too much and it globbed off in a big lump straight into the bowl instead of running down in a thin drizzle that you could draw with. That was lovely sometimes because it meant that Delia got extra syrup, but it would also ruin the game because then she didn't get a picture, so she didn't like it to happen too often.
The design started with a curved line, running parallel to the edge of the bowl, and then cut straight across the top to join up the two ends.
'It is a D for Delia!'
'Not quite, keep watching'.
Nain made another, thicker line sticking up from the middle of the straight part of the D shape, and then drew a (slightly wonky) triangle around the new line. It definitely wasn't a D for Delia, and the triangle part didn't look like a letter at all. It was…
'It's a boat!'
'Yes! Well done cariad! It's just like the one in your wonderful story about the shipwreck yesterday. Actually, the syrup-boat is a tiny little hint. I was hoping you could tell me how the story ended while we have our breakfast. I was so sorry not to find out, and I don't like to think of all those poor sailors staying stranded in the forest forever!'
Delia felt a happy burst of pride. All grown ups would say 'very good' if you made up a story for them even if they hadn't listened to a single word, but Nain had actually liked it so much that she'd remembered about it the next day and wanted to find out the ending.
She had been planning that the sailors would go through many more gruelling adventures before any of them had the slightest chance of escaping the woods, maybe one or two being eaten by tigers or getting lost among the trees and going mad... But she knew Nain would prefer a happy ending, so instead of the fresh torments the sailors might otherwise have faced, she made up a gentler version.
In between bites of porridge, she told how the littlest cabin girl (because why should they all be cabin boys?) came up with the idea of building a raft and going back the way they had come. It took several tries to get it right, but eventually they all climbed aboard and floated back up the stream, all the way to the big river. They had to sail through perilous rapids, and then one of the sailors very nearly got eaten by a giant pike, but he was saved at the last second when the fish leapt too high out of the water and got stuck in a tree.
Eventually, the little group made it all the way back to the sea and discovered a circus, just setting up on the beach. They joined them for a while, helping look after the elephant and the lion and all the monkeys (because they were used to wild animals after living with them in the forest), and as luck would have it, the next town the circus was travelling to was the very one they had come from! They all made it back safe and sound and never left their homes again, except for the littlest cabin girl, who stayed on with the circus as their finest acrobat and elephant rider. But her family joined the circus too, so they were happy as well and she wasn't lonely. They all learned to do circus tricks and became the star turn of the whole show, and they got to eat toffee apples for breakfast every single day. And so they all lived happily ever after.
Nain actually put down her spoon and applauded when Delia finished the story, clapping so hard it was as if the whole circus audience was joining in, right there in their kitchen.
'That was absolutely wonderful cariad! How do you come up with all those ideas?'
Delia swallowed the last bite of her porridge and beamed, glowing under the warmth of Nain's praise.
'I don't know, they just pop into my head and I know that's how it goes'.
'Well, you could knock spots off old Enid Blyton, for all that Faraway tree story is so lovely. I'm so impressed, Delia. I hope you'll tell me more stories later, while you're helping me in the garden'.
'What are we doing in the garden? Is it time to dig up the vegetables?'
'Well, it's getting to be time to harvest some of them, yes, and it would be lovely to have your help with that another day. But today I had a different sort of project in mind. Burying instead of digging'.
'Burying? Is this another game? Will we be burying pirate treasure?'
'Not exactly, although what we're going to bury will be very important. You didn't look in the back garden yesterday, did you?'
Delia thought back. They had stayed in the front garden to eat their fish and chips, and although Nain had been out earlier in the day to pick the runner beans, Delia had stayed in the kitchen. She wasn't really supposed to play in the back garden, because it was all full of Nain's fruit and vegetable plants, and it was very easy to accidentally trample them if you got caught up in a game and forgot to stay on the paths between the beds.
She shook her head.
'Well, it might look a bit different to how you remember it just at the moment. If you go upstairs and put on an old dress that you can get dirty in, then I'll show you'.
Nain washed the dishes and Delia dried and put them away, and then charged upstairs to find one of the old dresses that Mam had packed for her. She was absolutely bursting with curiosity about what could be going on in Nain's back garden.
What could they possibly be burying? Apart from seeds (or treasure, but Nain had said that wasn't it), she couldn't think of anything you might want to bury in a garden, and you didn't call it burying with seeds, you called it 'planting', so it couldn't be that.
She scrambled into her 'not to be worn in public, what-would-the-neighbours-say' dress as quickly as she could. It had a large mismatched patch where she'd torn it right down one side on a nail last summer, and the hem was a tiny bit short for her now, the fabric limp and faded from many washes. It was perfect for getting messy without it mattering. The socks she put on were yesterdays too, because she decided if they were going to get muddy then that would be better than putting on a fresh pair and having to change them again later. She felt gloriously scruffy as she thumped back down the stairs, ready to splash paint around or fall into a giant muddy bog, let alone whatever they were really going to do in the garden.
Nain helped her to tuck her hair up into a scarf out the way while Delia shuffled impatiently from foot to foot, and then they were finally ready.
They pushed open the back door, and Delia stared, her mouth hanging open.
The nearest part of the garden looked just the same as always – neat beds full of vegetables or fruit plants filling every bit of space, apart from the narrow paths between them that let you get from one to another. But right at the back, where there used to be lettuce and radishes, the vegetable beds had completely gone. In their place were huge heaps of soil, piled all around and about a strange, curved metal thing sticking out of the ground. For a confused moment she thought it must be the boat from her story, flung right out of the woods in the fury of the storm, somehow landing right here in their own garden.
But it wasn't a boat.
She couldn't work out what it was.
'That's our new Anderson shelter. It's to keep us safe, just in case there are any bombs'.
'How will it… keep us safe?'
It didn't look very safe. It looked strange and messy, and she wasn't at all sure she liked it being in Nain's garden.
It didn't belong here.
'Well, if any bomber planes fly over, we'll be able to run inside where they can't get to us, and sleep safe and sound until it's alright to come out again. The scout troops have been working all summer to help us older folks to get them dug in while the weather was good, and ours is almost finished now. We just need to pile all that loose dirt over the roof and around the shelter to make it extra safe, and then we'll be able to use it. Shall I show you what to do?'
'I… suppose so…'
She usually loved working with Nain in the garden, but she wasn't sure she did want to help this time. She would rather go inside and read a book, or even do more washing up.
Anything to not have to look at the torn up garden and the strange, corrugated roof of the Anderson shelter. Just the sight of it made her shiver a little.
'Don't worry cariad, it's just a precaution. I'm sure we won't see many bombs around here, maybe not any at all. But it'll be nice to know we have our shelter all ready for us if we need it, don't you think?'
She wasn't sure how to explain that looking at the shelter made her feel wobbly inside, and that she thought maybe she'd rather just stay in the house, even if there were bombs, than have to get into this horrible little metal hut. Especially at night.
She followed Nain to the end of the garden and helped scoop the loose earth over it all the same though. Maybe they could just bury it completely and forget about it.
They flung spadefuls of earth all over the roof and around the low sides, then patted it down firmly before adding more. Nain tried to draw her into storytelling again, but Delia wasn't in the mood to make things up anymore.
'Shall we sing a working song instead?'
'No thank you'.
'Oh, alright then... Maybe in a little while?'
Nain was giving her a worried sort of look, so Delia forced a little smile and said 'Yes, maybe', with as much enthusiasm as she could muster.
She went back to scooping and patting in forlorn silence while Nain kept up the conversation for both of them, trying to get her interested in stories about giant moles and secret caves.
She only really half listened to them, concentrating on what her hands doing and the cool feeling of the soil under her bare knees, until Nain said:
'It's almost like we're planting a giant seed, isn't it? Maybe planting a shelter seed is how you get a tree full of houses, like the Faraway tree. Just imagine if our little shelter sprouted up like that!'
That actually was quite an interesting idea.
Delia wondered what sort of shelter-seed the Faraway tree might have come from. Had it started out as a little mole house, like Moley's from Wind in the Willows? It certainly wouldn't have been one like their Anderson shelter, she was sure. It would be a brighter, friendlier sort, with cheerfully painted walls and cosy little beds inside. Their shelter wouldn't make a nice tree at all.
'I don't think I'd like that very much…'
'Really? I thought you loved the Faraway tree!'
'I do, but…'
She bit her lip, trying to work out how to explain.
'I think this shelter would grow into a very different sort of tree. It would be… scary'.
Nain looked down at their half covered metal shelter, the entrance a dark gap leading into a bleak, empty little hollow.
'Hmm… I see what you mean. It's not very inviting looking at the moment is it?'
'It looks horrid. I don't want to sleep in there Nain!'
It was probably rude of her to say that when all the boys from the scouts and Nain herself had worked so hard to build the shelter, but it was horrid, and she hated even looking at its dark entrance. It was like a tomb.
Nain put down her spade then, and climbed up to sit beside Delia on the roof.
'I know it looks a bit strange and bare just now, but we aren't finished yet. I promise it will be much nicer when we're done. Once we've finished piling earth over it, we can plant vegetables over the top so it'll look more like the rest of the garden. Maybe even some flowers too, around the entrance.
And that's when we'll start on the really important bit. I'll need you to be chief picture drawer so we can stick them up all over the walls to make it look homey inside, and also help me decide what else we might want to put in to make it pretty and comfy. We'll make up some beds in there, and have lamps and books and food supplies in case we need a snack. By the time we're finished I'm sure it'll be so cosy we'll be tempted to have sleepovers in there just for the fun of it.
We can pretend to be bunnies snuggled up in our burrow, just like when you were little. Do you remember? You used to hide under the bed and say it was your rabbit hole!'
Delia nodded. She was much too old for twee bunny games now of course, but the shelter would have made a perfect rabbit hole. It really did look a bit like one, now the metal was mostly hidden by earth.
She didn't say it out loud to Nain, but she thought privately that maybe Biscuit would still enjoy being a bunny in a burrow down here, and that helped a tiny bit.
'You won't leave me down there by myself, will you?'
'Not unless there's a real emergency'.
'Not even if there is an emergency. I don't want to wake up by myself, I won't know where you are or if you're ever coming back'.
'Tell you what. If I ever do have to, I'll wake you up and tell you exactly where I'm going first, so you won't have to worry about me just being gone. Alright?'
'Are you sure you can't promise just to stay with me instead?'
'I wish I could babi, but I can't promise one hundred percent, because we don't know what might happen yet. I can promise you that I will do my very best not to have to leave you in there on your own, and if I ever do, I'll come back just as quickly as I can. Alright?'
Delia would have preferred Nain to promise absolutely that she would never ever have to go into the shelter at all, or at least never be on her own in it if she did… but she couldn't help being a little bit glad that Nain didn't just say what she wanted to hear to make her feel better without really meaning it. Grown ups were always promising things they didn't mean and then seeming annoyed or confused when they broke their word and she got upset.
'Well… alright. But try VERY hard not to need to go anywhere'.
'I'll try my very hardest'.
'Do you think you could manage a bit more helping now? Just another half hour or so, and then I thought you could go over to play with Marged for the day'.
Marged lived just along the road from Nain, and they often played together when Delia came to visit.
'Oh yes! But won't you need me to keep helping? I don't think it will be finished by then…'
'That's very kind of you to offer, but actually, I'll need to stop at the same time you do. I've agreed to help the WVS with the evacuees today, so I'll drop you off and then go up to the town hall to meet them'.
Evacuees! Just like Mam had said. They really were going to be staying here!
'Couldn't I come and see the evacuees as well? Please, please, please?'
'I don't think so, babi. The poor things have had to leave their parents behind and come on a long train journey to a new place where they don't know anyone. I expect they'll all be feeling very tired and frightened, and won't want curious children coming along to stare at them'.
'I won't stare at them. I'll just look'.
'I know you won't mean to. But we need to do our best to think about what we'd want in their position, and I think I'd want it to be as quiet and gentle as possible, with just a few kind helpers showing me what to do. I wouldn't want to feel like I was in a zoo, would you?'
Delia thought about this. She wasn't quite sure she agreed with Nain. A long train journey without anyone telling you to sit nicely or be quiet sounded exciting – like an even bigger adventure than the one they'd had yesterday.
And surely it would be nice for them to see a friendly face? Nicer to see other children there rather than just a lot of old grown ups anyway.
'I think I'd like to see a local child that wanted to make friends with me if I was them'.
'You know that you want to be friends, but how would they know that? They'd just see you looking at them and not know you meant it to be friendly rather than rude. Besides, I'm not really sure you would like it. Remember how you were feeling yesterday after Mam went home? Well, think how it would have felt if there'd been a group of children standing in the kitchen watching you cry, even if they were friendly'.
'Oh. I didn't think of that…'
It would have been truly horrible to have strange children just standing there watching her be upset or angry and not be able to do anything about it… but she still wasn't quite ready to give up on seeing the evacuees.
'Couldn't I come and be a volunteer like you then? I could be helpful, I know I could. I so, so want to see them Nain'.
Nain sighed and gave her muddy knee a pat with her equally soil-encrusted hand.
'I know you do, but I just don't think it's a good idea. There'll be so many children and grown ups packed into the hall already, and I wouldn't have time to keep a proper eye on you. What if you got mistaken for an evacuee yourself and someone took you away? I really would prefer you to go and play with Marged where I know you'll be safe'.
What Nain said made sense, but it was still disappointing. Delia tucked her chin against her chest and mumbled 'alright' just loud enough for Nain to hear her.
'That's my good girl. You will have plenty more chances to meet the evacuees once they've settled into their new homes anyway, even if you might not see all of them together like in the hall. I'm sure you'll be able to make friends properly then'.
'Do you really think so?'
'Absolutely. I expect some of them will even be in your class when you start school. You can bond over being new girls together!'
Delia remembered how she had imagined meeting Sara Crewe among the evacuees, and the two of them becoming instant best friends and sharing a desk at school. Maybe it would be nicer to meet someone like Sara in a smaller group, rather than in the middle of a crowded hall where they wouldn't be able to talk properly.
She said it more definitely this time, and picked up the spade again to start on the next pile of earth.
'Did I ever tell you about the fisherman who accidentally fished a mermaid?'
'Do you know, I don't think you ever did. Will you tell me now?'
'Once upon a time…'