THE AGE OF INNOCENCE
They sat on the grass outside the village library awaiting Toby’s return; he having been sent to scope out the building. They watched as he walked back towards them, a mournful look on his face.
“It’s the old battle-axe on duty. She absolutely loathes me so I daren’t ask her. What do we do now?’
Miss Aznavour, the librarian, at the age of 36, hardly qualified for Toby’s description of being old. Nor was she a battle-axe. Rather, in her usual twin set and pearls, she was the epitome of a woman who had long given up hope of finding love and lived with her French mother in a cottage just a stone’s throw from her place of employment, resigned to her spinsterhood. To Miss Aznavour, the children of the village were her children and, little did they know, that she spent hours devouring book reviews and selecting suitable books for the children of Pinewater Village so that they, too, could discover the wonderful worlds that existed in literature, much as she, herself, had done as a child. When they did well in their exams or were accepted by a university, as Sebastian had been, she glowed with pride.
She watched as Sebastian approached her. Intelligent, handsome Sebastian, though fast departing adolescence, still retained a touch of innocence that melted Marie Aznavour’s heart.
“Hello, Sebastian. You’ve been delegated, have you?”
Sebastian looked up shyly at the librarian, a puzzled look on his face, but followed her stare towards the library doors and the four faces peeping in.
Swallowing, he got straight to the point.
“I say, Miss Aznavour, yesterday, Toby returned a book and...”
“Swallows and Amazons. I seem to recall it was one of your favourites, Sebastian. At least, I presumed so as you checked it out so many times”.
Sebastian blushed red. He was of an age, with college fast approaching, when he did not care to be reminded too often of his youthful pastimes.
“The thing is, Miss, we think he may have misplaced a five pound note inside the book, possibly uh, probably, that is. I wondered...”
“Well, why don’t we have a look, Sebastian?”
With a quick glance back at his friends, Sebastian followed the woman to the children’s section of the library where she scoured the book shelves, alphabetically labelled. Under R there was no sign of the book. Sebastian’s face expressed his glumness.
“Well, it’s not here, is it? I’m quite sure that it hasn’t been checked out again -which means that Vera, my assistant, can’t have processed it yet. Let’s try the returned book trolley”.
Sebastian’s face brightened, once more, as he followed her dutifully.
“All ready for university, Sebastian?”
“Uh, yes, Miss. Yes I am. Though it will be a wrench to leave, you know, the village”.
“And your friends, too, I expect”.
“Yes, of course”.
“Here we are and, look, here it is. Vera can be a bit slow to process returned books. You’re lucky. If I had been on duty yesterday evening, this book may already have been checked out by another fortunate child. Now, let’s see”.
With Sebastian looking on expectantly, the librarian took the book by its front cover and shook it. Out fluttered the five pound note. Sebastian grabbed at it delightedly.
“What’s it for, this money, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Oh no, Miss. Not at all. You see, we all pooled our piggy bank savings and took all the coins to the bank and exchanged it for this note. We plan to go to Holtoms and order up as much food and pop as we can afford and have a farewell party”.
Miss Aznavour smiled at this but was puzzled by one thing.
“But why the note? Mr Holtom would have accepted money in any form, surely?”
Blushing, Sebastian answered.
“We just want to see the look on his face. You see, every time one of us enters his shop, he follows us around suspiciously as if we’re thieves. It’s rather annoying. We just want to see the look on his greedy face. It’s silly, I suppose...”
“No. I understand perfectly, Sebastian”.
And, looking at the librarian anew, Sebastian, somehow, knew that she did understand.
Just an hour earlier, the five friends had been crowded into Toby’s bedroom, rummaging through his drawers, rifling through books, emptying out his wardrobe; clothes and artefacts scattered everywhere. Sebastian, the eldest, suddenly called for quiet.
“Wait! This is crazy. Let’s all calm down for just a mo and think”.
“Gosh, I hope you’ll all help me tidy this mess up before my mother gets home”, Toby whined, looking around at the bomb site that his bedroom had become.
“You can just blooming well clean it up yourself, Tobes. You’re the cause of all this, after all”, Toby’s sister, Pete, short for Petunia, responded.
Sebastian, the undoubted leader of this motley gang, called for silence. Outside, birds could be heard singing away happily as they revelled in the sunshine; all talk of possible war with Germany forgotten on this perfect English summer day.
“Now listen, chaps”, he began, Pete glowing with pride at being considered one of the chaps but Alice, her cousin, who spent an inordinate amount of time preening herself in front of a mirror, not so enamoured of this collective noun, crinkled her nose in protest. Sebastian, oblivious to the fact that he was the reason for her titivating, continued.
“Let’s all have a jolly good think about this. Toby, what were your exact movements yesterday after Jasper gave you the envelope?”
Toby, a shy bookish boy, much given to distraction and absent-mindedness, took off his glasses and polished them on his Ladybird tee shirt, a sign that he was giving serious consideration to this question.
“Well, I remember coming home...”
“You s.s.said that you were going to return your library b.b.books b.b.because one of them w.w.was overdue”, blurted Jasper, his stutter evident as usual whenever he was excited.
“Yes, that’s right. One of them was overdue and I didn’t want to cop another fine. Rather a good yarn, too, Have any of you read Swall...”
“Never mind about the book, Toby. Did you go to the library? Yes or no?”
“Well, as a matter of fact, I did. I’d forgotten all about that. Thanks, Jasp”.
The others let out a unified sigh of exasperation.
“You nitwit, Tobes. How could you forget that you went to the library?” Pete exclaimed; always ready to find fault with her brother.
“Toby, we have spent hours searching everywhere in this house for the envelope, including the destruction of your bedroom, and you failed to tell us that you had actually visited the library after you had returned home. Can you not see how frustrating you are? You were specifically entrusted with the care of the money and...”
Sebastian was halted in mid-stream as Jasper, despite his speech ailment, the most gung-ho of the five friends, clambered over Toby’s bed and darted for the door.
“Jasp, where are you off to?” his sister, Alice, called after him.
“T.t.to the l.l.library!”.
Of course, she had understood. Marie Aznavour, though English, had arrived in Pinewater with her French mother which was reason enough to have been cast as an outsider; a label that had taken several years for her to throw off. Oh yes, Miss Aznavour knew only too well what it was like to be viewed suspiciously in Holtoms. This same Marie Aznavour who, upon the death of her mother in three years time, would volunteer her services, as a French speaking person, to SOE, be parachuted into occupied France to work with the resistance, would discover love, finally and briefly, in the arms of a resistance leader, be betrayed by his jealous wife, captured and tortured by the Gestapo and, finally, executed at Dachau concentration camp just two days before it was liberated by the Americans, smiled as she watched Sebastian rejoin his friends gleefully. She felt deep joy as the five children whooped and hugged over the recovery of the five pound note; her children.
The village shop, owned by Mr and Mrs Holtom and known to one and all as Holtoms, stood adjoining the cobbler’s opposite the village green. It was the only food shop in the vicinity and Mr. Holtom was well aware of that, charging far too much for food items that, otherwise, would have entailed a ten mile journey to the nearest town; an undertaking most villagers could not easily make as they did not own a motor car. In one corner of this store, which, somehow, seemed to stock everything, stood a glass cabinet in which every conceivable sweet that a child could possibly want was displayed. Though the glass prevented a shopper from touching, nevertheless, whenever a child entered the store and, as if drawn by magnetic force, made a beeline for this treasure trove, Mr Holtom would drop whatever he was doing, no matter how important, and scrutinise the child until, finally, he, or she, would move away. He may as well have put up a sign: No window shopping allowed. To Mr Holtom only good, hard cash was important.
What a shock this man received when the five burst into his emporium and, instead of clamouring around his glass display of untouchables, they, led by that Sebastian whose father owned the only motor car in Pinewater, gathered around the main counter with a grocery list of adult items. Mrs. Holtom, her eyes transfixed by the sight of that large, blue, Bank of England five pound note that Sebastian held in his hand, rushed to fill his order while her avaricious partner looked on, mouth agape.
Poor timid, put upon Mrs. Holtom, dominated by her husband, would suffer a severe mental breakdown from which she would never recover when, in exactly twelve months time, she would be the recipient of a telegram informing her of the death of her only child, Flying Officer Nigel Holtom, RAF, whose single seater Supermarine Spitfire aircraft would be shot down in an aerial encounter with German aircraft that would become known as The Battle of Britain.
While we are in this part of the village, let us spare a thought for the cobbler whose shop adjoined Holtoms. This man had arrived in Pinewater, from Warsaw, Poland, almost twenty five years previously and had set up shop before the Holtoms, themselves, had arrived. Yet he was still considered an outsider despite the demand for his undoubted skill at repairing shoes. Not even addressed by the moniker of “cobbler,” he was known to all and sundry as “the shoe mender”. Real name: Karel Koslowski, he worked diligently every day, smiled politely to all his customers, returned to his lonely cottage each night and pined for his Polish family. Four years from now, he would open his shop, as usual, one morning, then lock the door. Quietly, he would extract the laces from the many, many pairs of shoes that sat on shelves, their leather giving this shop its pungent, familiar odour. Then he would weave, knot and fashion a noose and hang himself from the oaken rafter; as he swung, the letter he had received that morning, informing him of the death of his mother and father in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, would flutter to the ground.
The five needed two trips in the rowing boat across to One Tree Island, in order to transport themselves and their goods. The boat belonged to Sebastian’s father and was moored on the private jetty that loomed over the Thames at the bottom of the family garden. As they hauled the wooden crate of pop and the picnic basket up onto the grass, unknown to them, they were being observed through binoculars by Professor Quintin Channon, Sebastian’s father, from his study at the rear of the house. Once he saw that all five were safely ashore, he relaxed and left them to enjoy their feast. How he longed to tell his only child how much he loved him but the “stiff upper lip” instilled in him as a child simply forbade it. This highly intelligent man would go on to win honours for his work at Bletchley Park, breaking down the German’s Enigma Code that would help win the war for England, but would never recover from the loss of his beloved son who, only a few months into university life, would suddenly, in a fit of patriotic duty, enlist, only to lose his life in the Dunkirk evacuation.
Their food laid out on the picnic blanket, their mouths watering, the five friends stared with pride at the feast they had gathered: pork pies, sausage rolls, scotch eggs, great slabs of Cadbury’s chocolate. In the crate sat bottles of their favourite pop: Cream Soda, Tizer and Lucozade; all warm and fizzy. Little did they know that this would be their last supper together; the age of innocence passing. They reminisced, laughed and gorged until, fully sated, they made their way back across to the jetty in the twilight.
Petunia and Toby, would never hear of Sebastian’s death for they would be sent by their parents to the “safety” of relatives in the United States upon the outbreak of war but would both be among the 117 passengers of the S.S. Athenia that perished when struck by a German torpedo off the coast of Scotland.
My sister, Alice, and I would mourn our two cousins and friends together, inconsolable. A year later, when the news of Sebastian’s death was revealed, the shock proved too much for poor Alice who walked into the Thames at high tide and was no more.
I, of course, survived everything. I still stutter occasionally but, usually, only when I think back on those days. It was a time of joy, friendship, innocence and, dare I say it, love. For us, it was idyllic for we were blind to everything outside of our band of five. To us, we were the Swallows and Amazons, inseparable until, one fateful day, the promise made by Neville Chamberlain of peace in our time was shattered forever.