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Peggy's Letters

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Peggy's Letters

  Peggy’s Letters

  Jacqueline Halsey

  Copyright © 2005 Jacqueline Helsey

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or

  transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,

  including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and

  retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in

  writing from the publisher.

  National Library of Canada Cataloguing in Publication Data:

  First Published in the United States 2005

  Library of Congress Control Number: 2005930965

  Summary: In the devastation of London in WWII, a ten-year-old girl

  loses everything only to make a surprising new friend.

  Free teachers’ guide available. www.orcabook.com

  Orca Book Publishers gratefully acknowledges the support

  for its publishing programs provided by the following agencies:

  the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry

  Development Program (BPIDP), the Canada Council for the Arts,

  and the British Columbia Arts Council.

  Typesetting and cover design by Lynn O’Rourke

  Cover & interior illustrations by Susan Rielly

  In Canada: In the United States:

  Orca Book Publishers Orca Book Publishers

  www.orcabook.com www.orcabook.com

  Box 5626 Stn.B PO Box 468

  Victoria, BC Canada Custer, WA USA

  V8R 6S4 98240-0468

  07 06 05 04 • 6 5 4 3 2 1

  Printed and bound in Canada.

  For Mum.

  And for children living in war

  zones around the world.

  A heart felt thank you to

  everyone who helped make a

  dream come true.


  Some words and terms in this story may be unfamiliar.

  Allotments: Community garden plots for growing vegetables.

  Anderson shelters: A family air-raid shelter. It was dug into the ground and had a semi-circular corrugated metal roof.

  Barrage balloons: Hot-air blimps. Their purpose was to stop enemy planes from flying low over large cities.

  Blackouts: Thick black curtains or shutters put up at night to keep light from showing outside. Lights would give away the position of towns and cities to enemy aircraft.

  The Blitz: A period of fifty-nine consecutive nights of bombing raids on London.

  Doodlebug: The nickname given to the V1 rocket. These unmanned rocket bombs were launched from the coast of occupied France in 1944. About half a million homes were destroyed by Doodlebugs, and many Londoners lost their lives.

  Lav: Toilet

  Marmite: A thick, strong-tasting savory spread.

  Nappy: Diaper

  Nicking: A slang word for stealing.

  Postman: Letter carrier

  Pram: Baby carriage

  Queue: Line up

  Rationing: Basic foods were rationed so that everyone, rich or poor, had enough to eat. As the war continued more foods were added to the ration list.

  Shrapnel: Pieces of metal debris from bombs or aircraft.

  Sixpence: A small silver coin about the size of a dime.

  Tea: The family evening meal served with a hot drink.


  News travels fast on our street. It flies over garden fences and zings along washing lines.

  “Coooeeee…Peggy luv. Run and tell your Mum, Keddy’s got sausages, one per ration book. But hurry, dear. There’ll be ever such a long queue.”

  “Mum…Mum…There’s sausages.”

  “I heard,” calls Mum from the back door. “Thanks for letting us know, Mrs. P.”

  Pulling on my coat, I grab the strings of our gas-mask boxes and hurry into the kitchen. Last week the greengrocer had oranges in, but we were too late, and they were gone by the time it was our turn.

  “Pee hew, Tommy.” I hold my nose and he copies me. He’s so funny.

  “It’s no good. I’m going to have to change him,” says Mum.

  “But we’ll be too late again.”

  Mum gives me a stop-whining look, and I know we’re not going anywhere until my baby brother’s in a clean nappy.

  At last he’s ready. I clip the straps of his harness to each side of the pram, and off we go, down the hill to the High Street.

  My friend, Nora, is skipping on the other side of the road.

  “Keddy’s got sausages,” I yell.

  “Mum’s already in the queue,” she yells back. “Come and call for me this afternoon. Bring your skipping rope.”


  A bit farther along we bump into the postman.

  “Nothing for you today, Peggy,” he says.

  I sigh and bend down to stroke the airraid warden’s ginger cat.

  “Keddy’s got sausages,” I purr.

  “Don’t dawdle, there’s a luv,” calls Mum.

  The queue outside Keddy’s butcher shop stretches all the way along the High Street to the bomb-damaged house with the missing wall. I can see the wallpaper in the different rooms just like a doll’s house. We join the end of the line. It’s going to be another long, long wait.

  “What a lovely boy you are,” coos the woman in front of us, patting Tommy on the head.

  “He’s only seventeen months old, but he’s really smart,” I tell her.

  “I’m sure he is,” says the woman, laughing and tickling Tommy under the chin. She and Mum start grumbling about the weather and the war and how the caterpillars ate most of the cabbages. I’m bored with listening, so I twirl Tommy’s pram beads and make him giggle.

  The queue shuffles up to the butcher’s shop window.

  “Nearly our turn,” says Mum.

  At last I see the circle of sausages. Tonight they’ll be sizzling in our frying pan. Mmmmm. I can almost taste them.

  Tommy claps his hands over his ears, and before I can say, “What’s the matter?” I hear the whistling shriek of a Doodlebug too.

  Mr. Keddy runs out of his shop waving his arms. “In here,” he yells. “Quick everybody.”

  “Go on, Peggy,” shouts Mum as she gets Tommy out of his pram.

  I want to stay with Mum, but she nudges me forward, so I follow the other customers to the back of the shop and down the steps into the cellar. There’s sawdust on the floor, and it smells of blood. My legs turn to jelly, and my heart feels like it’s going to jump out of my body. Mum pushes her way through and stands next to me. Tommy is screaming at the top of his lungs, but I can still hear the bomb’s whine over all his noise. I know when the engine stops, it will fall out of the sky and explode on whatever’s below.

  “Don’t fall on us today. Don’t fall on us today.” I chant the magic words under my breath. They always keep me safe.

  “I hate Doodlebugs,” says Mum. “They’re worse than the Blitz.” Her lip is trembling like she’s going to cry. She cries a lot these days.

  “There there, dear,” says Mr. Keddy, patting Mum on the shoulder. “Stiff upper lip, girl, that’s the way. Got to be brave in front of the kiddies.”

  Mum looks really frightened. I thought it was just kids that got scared. Tommy is still crying.

  “There there, dear,” I say. “Stiff upper lip, that’s the way.” My voice is all shaky. It doesn’t sound like me at all, and Tommy’s lips are wobblier than ever. But I know how to make him laugh.

  “Look, Tommy.” I uncurl his fingers and tickle his hand. “Round and round the garden, like a teddy bear. One step.” Tommy watches my fingers marching up his arm.

  The cellar is quiet now that Tommy has stopped crying.

Two steps…”

  Why am I the only one talking? Looking up, I see frightened eyes all around me.

  “Mum!” I cry. “I can’t hear the bomb anymore.”

  There’s a loud crack, and a rumble of thuds shakes the floor. Flakes of plaster and dust flutter down on us like snow.

  No one moves.

  “Tiggle,” says Tommy.

  “Oh, Tommy! Tickle you under there.”

  Tommy bursts into giggles, and everyone breathes again. We’re laughing. We’re safe. I hug Tommy tight, and Mum hugs both of us.

  “Cor blimey! Bit too close for comfort, that one,” says Mr. Keddy, wiping his forehead with his handkerchief. He pulls out a barley sugar and gives it to me. I stare at it. Sweets are rationed.

  “Go on, take it,” he says.

  I pop the sweet in my mouth and mumble a sticky thank you.

  At last, the single note of the all-clear siren sounds, and we climb up into the daylight. The shop window is a spider’s web of cracks.

  “Could be worse,” says Mr Keddy with a sigh. “Now who was next in line?”

  Outside there’s dust and smoke and something really strange. The tree in front of the butcher’s shop is covered with dresses, all waving their sleeves in the breeze.

  People are everywhere.

  “Three of ’em nasty rocket bombs came over at once,” I hear someone say.

  “Poor Miss Rose,” says another. “Looks like her shop took a direct hit.”

  “Give us a hand, Peggy,” calls Mum. “I’ve got our sausages.”

  After clipping Tommy into the pram and packing the sausages at his feet, we start for home. A fire engine races by. It’s going in our direction.

  “Ding, ding, ding” says Tommy, ringing a pretend fire-engine bell.

  Just as we get to the corner, Nora races up.

  “Peggy, come quick. Your house got hit!”


  Mum and I start running at the exact same moment, bumping Tommy up and down in the pram as we go. Nora runs alongside.

  Our house is in flames.

  “Stand back there!” cries the Fire Chief.

  “But it’s our house.”

  “Is that right, missus?”

  Mum nods.

  “Sorry to hear that, luv.” He turns to the small crowd that’s forming. “Stand back. Let my men do their job.” With outspread arms, he herds everyone onto the far curb.

  I watch the flames eat our house. The roof has fallen in, and the front wall is down. Now everyone can see our home in its underwear. The neighbors pat me on the shoulder then talk as if I’m not there.

  “Blinkin’ war…lucky escape…poor dears…”

  Their pity is almost worse than the fire.

  There’s a gasp. Another wall crumples to the ground. Nora puts her arm round me. She is talking, but her words are snatched away with the sparks and the smoke. I can only hear the fire. A cup of tea grows cold in my hands. I don’t even know how it got there.

  The gray sky darkens into night. The fire is out. Everyone goes. Even Nora says good-bye. I picture families in their homes, putting up the blackouts, making supper and listening to the wireless. I want to go home too.

  “Come on dears,” says a Red Cross lady. “Nothing more you can do here. They’ve set up a rest-center in St. Mark’s church hall. If you’ve nowhere else to go, you can spend the night there.”

  I don’t want to go. This is our home.

  “Come back in the morning. Sort things out then.” She turns to a short woman with bouncy chins. “Maud, can you take them along to St. Marks.

  “Course I can,” says Maud, taking Mum firmly by the arm. She ushers her along, while I follow behind pushing Tommy in the pram.

  The church hall seems very bright after the blackness of the street. Maud sits us down at a long table and brings over soup and sandwiches. I swirl my soup into a whirlpool. Mum’s messing with hers too. Only Tommy tucks in.

  “You enjoy your supper while I set up some beds,” says Maud. “Poor dears, you look tuckered out.”

  I’m not hungry, but we never waste food these days, so I start eating. I wish Maud would stop calling me a “poor dear.”

  “All finished?” says Maud a bit later. “I’ll show you where I’ve put you for the night.” She leads us to a corner that smells of old hymnbooks and bustles off.

  “As long as we are all together,” says Mum sitting on one of the beds. “That’s all that matters…” Her voice cracks and fades away. She pulls Tommy onto her knee and rocks him.

  I take out my notebook. It’s the only paper I have to write to Dad.

  Dear Dad

  I can’t believe everything’s gone. Not just the house and all the things we need but our special things too. Mum’s lost our photos, and I’ve lost my biscuit tin of your letters. It was my most treasured possession in the whole world.

  Tonight, home is a musty old church hall. There are other families living here too. Will this be our home until the war is over? The question sits inside me like a cold lump.

  Little kids are racing about, and a sing-a-long has started round the piano. How can they act like everything’s normal?

  Love Peggy

  Tommy’s asleep at last. A queue forms for the lav. The lights dim. Mum and I lie down in our clothes. Perhaps if I close my eyes I can pretend I’m back in my own bedroom. I imagine the blue flowery bedspread with Old Bear sitting on my pillow. But it’s no use. The pictures in my head are of angry flames destroying everything. In the darkness I can hear people coughing and sniffing, wriggling and snoring. Someone near me is sobbing quietly. I suddenly realize it’s Mum.


  I’m awake. If I don’t open my eyes, yesterday may have been a bad dream.

  “Morning all,” says a cheery voice. “Looks like it’s going to turn out nice, bit chilly mind you.”

  No use pretending any longer. That’s Maud’s voice, and I’m lying on an uncomfortable camp bed in a drafty church hall.

  “Hello, Maud. I didn’t see you there,” says Mum. Her voice is tired, and her eyes are puffy.

  Around us, the church hall bustles with people getting ready for the day. Beds are being packed up, blankets folded. Tommy’s fussing.

  “What are we going to do, Mum?”

  “Have breakfast,” interrupts Maud. “Can’t go making decisions on an empty stomach. There’s toast and jam over there. You’ll get a nice cuppa tea too.” Maud moves on to the next family.


  “I don’t know, luv. I really don’t know.”

  Tommy jumps into my arms.

  “Oooo, he’s soaking wet.”

  “Peggy luv, everything we own is in the pram. There are no more nappies.” She buries her face in her hands.

  “Well, you can’t stay like this, Tommy. Hold your arms up. Let’s get all these soggy clothes off you.” I pat him dry with the pram sheet, fold it into a triangle and pin it round his bottom.

  “You’ll have to wear your outdoor coat indoors today. It’s a let’s-be-silly day.”

  Tommy wriggles down on to the floor and scampers around.

  “What would Dad do?”

  “Let’s go and have breakfast,” says Mum, without answering my question.

  By the time we have finished eating, Tommy’s face, hands, hair and coat are covered in blackberry jam, but at least Mum looks better.

  “Do you think you could stay here and watch your brother for me?” she asks as we clean him up and rinse out his clothes.

  “I’ll keep an eye on them for you, dear,” calls Maud from behind the tea urn.

  “I don’t need anyone keeping an eye on me,” I whisper loudly to Mum.

  Maud hears and laughs. “Course you don’t. But I’ll be here anyway.”

  I wish Maud would go away.

  “Where are you going, Mum?”

  “I’ve got to see someone about tonight.”

  “Can’t we come too? Please don’t make me stay here on my own.”

  “It’s better if I go by myself, Peggy. Won’t be long, I promise.”

  I look around the hall then back at Mum. “Okay.”

  “That’s my girl.” We both smile at Dad’s favorite expression.

  “Keep your fingers crossed for me,” she says, tying a scarf around her head and pulling on her coat. “Be a good boy, Tommy.”

  After Mum leaves I hold Tommy’s hand, and we toddle slowly round the church hall ending up at the piano. I lift him on to the wide stool, and he pounds away on the yellow keys. A woman joins us with her little boy, and the two of them begin a deafening duet.

  Why isn’t Mum back yet? She’s been gone ages. A panicky feeling twists my insides into knots. Supposing she doesn’t come back. The door squeaks. I look up. But it’s not Mum. It’s a scruffy looking boy trying to get my pram out of the door.


  The pram is stuck half in and half out. I race over and grab the handle.

  “Let go.”

  “Keep your hair on. I’m not nicking it. I’m going to bring it back,” says the boy.

  I don’t like his attitude.

  “You don’t borrow things without asking.”

  “Weren’t no one to ask, Miss Bossy Boots.”

  “My name’s Peggy. What do you want my pram for anyway?”

  The boy pushes a scraggly ginger curl out of his eyes.

  “I found something really big to add to my shrapnel collection. I thought the caretaker’s trolley would be around, but I can’t find it. Let me use your pram. You can come with me if you like.”

  “What makes you think I want some dirty old bit of metal in my pram? Anyway I’ve got to look after my little brother.”

  “Aww, come on. It’s only just up the road.”

  Sunshine is squeezing through the half-opened door, and I long to get out of the smelly church hall. I look back at Tommy. He’s playing happily with the other little boy. Maud is there too, and she did offer to keep an eye on us.

  “All right,” I say. “Just for a minute. Hold the door open.”

  I steer the pram through the narrow gap and bump it down the steps.

  “What’s your name?”

  “Stanley, but everyone calls me Spud,” he says, taking the handle of the pram. After a few steps Spud sticks his bottom out and walks along on his toes.

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