Olive was assessing the train compartments in the way a bourgeois architect might evaluate the suitability of a building for some grand artistic project.
Specifically, she was looking for a compartment that was not full to the brim with snivelling children. Olive was not a snivelling child, and did not care to associate with those who were. She was five years old, and she was only too aware that this journey represented her first proper encounter with the real world. A few minutes earlier, she and Mary had been standing on the train platform, staring morbidly at the scene around them. It had been difficult to understand, mainly because Olive and Mary were unsure what everybody seemed so upset about. There was a train, and there was a thing called a ‘war’, and there was another thing called the countryside. It was a sequence she didn’t yet quite understand, but it involved parental separation, and packing.
Mary Maggott, meanwhile, was more engrossed with the contents of her bag. She giggled quietly to herself as she made out the dark silhouette of her prized position, the present which had been given to her by her grandfather that same day: a large rifle which he swore had been used at the Battle of the Sum during the Great War. But the rifle was not loaded with bullets or anything, of course; Mary’s grandfather wasn’t stupid enough to allow a four-year-old child (four and eleven-twelfths, as Mary had hastily corrected him) take a loaded gun onto a train at the start of a war. No, the bullets were stored in a small wooden matchbox wedged into Mary’s bag beside the gun, slightly ajar so Mary would have access to them whenever necessary. But, of course, as Mary had been sternly warned, she was only to use these in case of an emergency, such as if another child attempted to abduct her packed lunch.
“When are we going?” Olive had whined, her voice growing gradually louder and gaining more rhythm with each syllable. She had decided to investigate the platform, and was dragging Mary along with her. Most of the view was obscured by the wall of people snivelling all over the place, but the girls had managed to observe a long, straight hole in the floor with some wooden boards in them. Mary shook her gun back deep into her bag and staggered along behind her friend as Olive’s moaning continued to build: “I want to see the countryside! I hate wearing this stupid label! My suitcase is heavy! I’m hungry!”
It was then that Olive’s nervous-looking mother, who had anxiously been tottering after the two girls, attempted to whisper one more quiet goodbye to her daughter before her dream came true and she was able to walk away without that wild little girl who scared her to death by her side. The next time she would see Olive would hopefully be when travelling to a nice cottage, when Olive would be under the care of some unfortunate country folk. Olive’s mother didn’t want to even think about what they would think of her, having brought up a child like this. But she had more important things to worry about, living in a large city such as London during a war. Like dust, for example. Bombs always brought dust.
Mary’s parents, although rather fond of their own child, still failed to burst into tears at the sight of their daughter boarding a train. Instead they waved cheerily, once again hastily and loudly reminding Mary that her gun was right in her bag if she needed it. By the time the two girls found themselves dragging their suitcases down the narrow aisle of a train ten minutes later, Mr. and Mrs. Maggott had been completely digested by the crowd.
Therefore, free from parental supervision, the girls were walking down the train’s narrow corridor. There was some difficulty in finding two vacant seats: for most of the children, their collective emotion was almost palpable in the air, and many had chosen to huddle together in close groups that left little room for outsiders, as if closeness alone could compensate for the inability of anyone to remedy the situation. Whilst Olive analysed this scene, Mary dragged her suitcase with an air of false exasperation, like an adult burdened by the motions of the everyday life of the professional commuter. When she spotted a suitable train compartment, however, her eagerness to alert Olive to the discovery overwhelmed the pretence.
“There’s one!” she cried, pointing towards a door behind which only five other children sat.
Showing the necessary scepticism, Olive briefly peered through the window with her nose in the air as if to assess the quality of the compartment, before throwing open the door, deciding to make it very clear to these other children that this part of the train was now hers.
As the two girls sat down heavily opposite one another on the seats nearest the door, the casually eyed the four boys and the girl with whom they were sharing the compartment. The first thing that struck them was the total absence of tears. The three boys on the right hand side, all of whom looked completely alike, had squashed together on two seats to make room for Olive rather than for comfort. They had pale-brown hair with identical aged-looking clothes made from the same colourless material that characterised Olive’s and Mary’s wardrobes, and they all had a trunk each, with identical names that the girls were too young to read painted on their tops in black paint.
“What’s your name?” Olive immediately asked another child, a pale boy sitting near the window. Her question sounded like an order, as though she were demanding to see his train ticket, and the boy initially paused to consider this question.
There was absolutely no hesitancy, however, about his answer. “My name is Albert Theodore Rowlings, and this is my sister, Priscilla,” he answered extravagantly, indicating the pale, blonde-haired girl to his left, who scowled welcomingly at Olive before turning to stare out the window. He looked almost relieved that someone had given him an opportunity to introduce himself. “I suppose you can just call me Albert. In all honesty, though, that’s a gesture of goodwill, as judging from my status you ought really to call me your Lordship, because my father is a lord and he’s very rich, you see, but anyway, most of my school friends know me as Albert. It’s not my official title, you know. Sorry about all the luggage; it was most difficult getting hold of someone to bring us down to the country privately, and Mama simply insisted we bring absolutely everything we need, you see, given that…”
“What are your names?” Olive interrupted. She was now addressing the three boys next to her.
The boy in the middle, who was distinctly rounder than the other two, answered before either of the other boys could open their mouths. “I’m Frederick Whinging,” he said. “And these are my two brothers, Augustus and Adolphus. Gosh, this is exciting, isn’t it? The countryside!”
“What’s your name?” Albert suddenly demanded of Olive.
“Olive,” Olive said shortly. Whilst Olive did not particularly object to talking about herself, her blank tone of voice implied that this was not the question she had hoped for.
“My name’s Mary,” Mary piped up. Out of the corner of her eye, she cast a glance at Albert Theodore Rowlings. “Mary Maggott, actually!”
Albert Theodore Rowlings abruptly snorted. “Mary Maggott?” he spluutered. “Mary Maggott? What a surname! Ridiculous! What were your parents thinking, keeping a name like that? If I had that sort of name, I’d change it right away! Maggott! Honestly!”
Mary frowned in thought. She was thinking back to something that her grandfather had said just that morning, as she was standing with her bag and suitcase, about to leave: “If another child makes fun of your name, show them your gun!”
Mary shrugged, and opened her bag. Carefully drawing out the long rifle, she looked up at Albert and grinned. “Do you like my gun?” she asked pleasantly. She wasn’t too sure how just showing Albert the gun would convince him that she had a nice surname, but her grandfather had probably known what he was talking about. “My grandad gave it to me as a going-away present. He said that if you made fun of my surname, I should show it to you. Rather nice, isn’t it?”
Albert did not answer straight away. Recognising the long metal object, he somehow turned even paler and became absolutely still. After a few seconds in which he did nothing but stare, he uttered the word, “Gun?”
“Oh, I didn’t mention, actually it’s an army rifle,” Mary said, as usual getting carried away with the details about her prized possession. “Grandad said that he used it in the Great War during the Battle of the Sum, and killed lots of people. It was all on purpose, because Grandad is really brave, apart from this one time when he just pointed it at some other man who had stolen some of his rations and it went off accidentally.”
Albert turned even paler than before, all the while staring at the barrel of the gun. It was at this point that Olive and Mary noticed that Albert’s sister Priscilla seemed to be perching on the headrest of her seat. The boy called Frederick was staring at Mary and her gun with an awed expression on his face.
“Please put that away,” said a squeaky voice. It took Mary a second to realise that the sound came from the mouth of Priscilla Rowlings, who looked ready to pass out.
“Oh, hello there!” said Mary cheerfully, realising that that was the first thing that Priscilla had said. “I’m Mary Maggott. Don’t worry; I won’t point the gun at you, because you haven’t made fun of my surname or tried to steal my lunch or anything yet.”
“Lunch?” said Frederick thoughtfully, but whatever idea that had slipped into his head rapidly dissolved.
“Hmmm,” said Olive, getting a little tired of the whole conversation. “Mary, put the gun away.”
Mary looked distraught. “Oh…but I haven’t told them anything about how Grandad used the gun to hit that man who gave out the orders…”
“You can tell them later!” Olive insisted. “Put it away. It isn’t even loaded.”
Albert appeared to relax a little at this news, until Mary spoke again. “But I can easily just get one of the bullets from my bag,” she said. However, she put the gun away and sat back in her seat miserably, staring at a smear of grime on the floor.
There was a long silence. No one in the compartment knew exactly what to say next. Albert relaxed in his seat and the colour began to come back to his face. Priscilla hastily climbed down from the headrest of her seat and sat down again, brushing at her skirt, only to shriek soon afterwards.
“Bertie, look at my frock!” she cried. “It’s filthy! It’s all creased from sitting on that stupid headrest! What now? Mama will be horrified!”
“Mama won’t see it,” Albert reminded her a little tiredly, as though he was used to this sort of routine. “We’re going to the countryside, Priscilla.”
At this, Priscilla burst into tears. “I don’t want to go to the countryside!” she sobbed piteously. “It’s dirty! And smelly! I don’t have the right clothes! I heard that in the countryside, people go to the lavatory in a horrid little shed in the garden!”
“Oooh,” said Olive. Just thinking about all the opportunities for mischief that lay with all that putrid human waste made her smile.
“…And where will I go to school?” Priscilla continued to wail. “I can’t go to a common school, with a lot of smelly village children!”
“Oh, we shan’t!” Albert insisted confidently. “Mama and Father will have made it clear that we are not, under any circumstances, going to be subjected to the same kind of treatment as the other children. Quite frankly, I’m outraged we even have to share a train with the common people.”
As though in answer, there was a loud whistle and a sharp jerk of the train which nearly caused the children to topple of their seats. A slow chugging noise started up, steadily growing faster and louder as the train slowly started to move past the sea of waving, crying parents. The two Rowlings children bit their lips, and glanced at one another with pale faces.
“Oooooh, we’re off!” Frederick squealed, bouncing up and down in his seat. “Oooh, I wish we were there already!”
“Oh, shut up, you,” Albert muttered miserably. “You behave like everything is some fabulous adventure. You’re not living in the real world. Think about it; when we get back to London when this war is over, you’ll have to go to work, probably for the rest of your life. Priscilla and I are the ones who should be rejoicing.”
“I shan’t work,” said Olive smartly, wrinkling her nose.
“I shall!” said Mary, getting excited. She had this all worked out. “I will be a shotgun inspector! If not, then a rifle tester. And if not, a machine gun look-afterer.”
“Don’t be ridiculous; there’s no such occupation,” Albert said dismissively. “No, I expect you lot will work for a factory or something, with other people such as yourselves.”
“No!” Olive cried. “Mary will be a gun person…”
“Machine gun look-afterer!” Mary corrected sternly.
“Yes, all right,” Olive said exhaustedly. “And I shall be…”
“You could be a professional stamp-collector, like I shall,” Frederick suggested unhelpfully. “My uncle said it’s the greatest job in the world. Just think, Olive, peacefully gluing stamps into an album all day long! Albums get to be worth an awful lot of money after a few years of hard work.”
Olive, not bothering to come up with some clever response to this unbelievably stupid and thoughtless comment, gave Frederick an extremely unimpressed look and resumed her thinking.
“You could be my assistant,” Mary suggested innocently.
“No, I won’t be anyone’s assistant!” Olive cried. Honestly, who did Mary think she was?
“Oh, you lot won’t be anything special,” Albert drawled, and Priscilla nodded sagely. “I expect you’ll turn out to be…”
“Oh my goodness, Augustus, Adolphus, look!” Frederick shrieked suddenly, pointing at the window. “Look at that, there! Look at it!”
When Augustus and Adolphus spotted what Frederick was referring to, they gasped in excitement and, brushing the curtains out of the way, pressed themselves against the window of the train to get as close a look as possible. The remaining four pairs of eyes in the carriage turned to the window to get a look at this miraculous show. They had noticed that it had become a lot darker than before, and saw that it was because they were driving through a tunnel.
“Oh, isn’t that amazing!” whispered Frederick. He was now drooling against the glass.
“Are you blind?” said Albert meanly. “That’s a brick wall, stupid.”
“I know, but look at the mortar between the bricks!” Frederick cried. “That must be, what, three, three and a half centimetres thick?”
“Incredible!” said Augustus and Adolphus in unison.
Frederick turned to Olive and then to Mary. “Brick watching is another of our hobbies, you know,” he explained. “On our birthday as a special treat, Dad sometimes takes us down to the train station to measure the width of the mortar between the bricks. And then we record the measurements in our special record book. It is rather fun.”
Olive opened her mouth to issue forth a passionate, scathing objection, but upon reflection decided that she didn’t have the time or energy to try and make such ridiculous people see reason.
“What a shame Dad hasn’t found this spot,” Frederick continued, turning back to the window, where Augustus and Adolphus had their faces pressed up against the glass. “We’ll have to tell him.”
“Not a lot of people enjoy standing in train tunnels,” muttered Albert, though no one but Priscilla heard him.
All three of the boys groaned loudly as the train passed out of the tunnel. They sat dejectedly back in their seats, whereupon another idea apparently seized Frederick. He turned very quickly to either Augustus or Adolphus. “How many sandwiches did Mum pack?” he demanded.
Augustus picked up an enormous paper bag from the floor and peered inside. “Three each,” he said. “But Mum said we weren’t to eat them until we got to the countryside.”
“Oh, that’s far too long to wait!” wailed Frederick. He made a grab for the paper bag containing the sandwiches, as though he would die from hunger if he bothered to spend two seconds asking Augustus to pass it to him. “Give me the sandwiches!”
In the minutes that passed following this, Olive and Mary were forced to watch the disgusting sight of three boys, one slightly more desperate than the others, violently devour several enormous sandwiches in a very short space of time.
“Revolting,” Priscilla muttered. Olive noticed that she looked faintly green.
“I agree,” Albert remarked, eyeing the brothers with a kind of disgusted pity. “I’ll certainly be writing to Father to ask him to complain to whoever organised the seating in this train.”
But Olive was increasingly learning to tone out their voices, and instead gazed out of the window. When were they going to get to the countryside, anyway? How far away was it, exactly? All Olive could see was a lot of trees and grass.
So Olive was quite surprised when, after some time, the train slowed down near to a stop in front of a wide, outdoor platform. Looking out, the children could see that this platform could not be more different from the one that they had left. It seemed like a lonely and solitary stage, as for a play, in the middle of this grassy landscape. The greenery looked bright and almost yellow in the sunlight. A single road led up to the platform, which was raised concrete, with a tiny building behind it. The platform had a few people milling around, but it was not at all like the busy, smoky London station.
“Is that it?” Olive demanded. “What? That’s rotten! Mum said the countryside would be the best place I’d ever seen! She said there’d be swings and slides and everything, and she said we’d never want to leave!”
No one answered. Olive looked around, and observed that Albert and Priscilla were looking out of the window with a mixture of hope, shock and disappointment on their faces. After a moment, Albert reached up and started to remove some of their cases from the rack above their heads. As the train braked the wheels screeched ear-splittingly loudly on the rails, and Priscilla screeched just as loudly as she was almost thrown off her seat as the train gave a sharp shudder.
“Wretched train!” Albert growled like a miserable old man, dumping a heavy-looking suitcase on the floor. “I could have fallen over! Why is this stupid case so heavy, Priscilla?”
“Not my fault,” Priscilla sulked. “I needed my dresses to go somewhere. Mama thought one case was enough.”
“I can’t believe that we couldn’t bring Perkins,” said Albert miserably. “The people we live with had better have some decent staff.”
Olive and Mary, without stopping to ask Albert what he meant, gathered up their own bags. Olive marched out of the compartment with Mary in tow.
“Oh! I say, wait!” Frederick suddenly called to the girls. “Augustus, Adolphus! We have to keep up with our new friends!”
Olive shuddered and closed her eyes in repulsion, walking even faster. Mary sensed her growing repugnance and started to jog alongside. “Olive, slow down!” she puffed.
But Olive simply ploughed through the rush of boys and girls pouring off the train in her eagerness to get away from the Whinging brothers. She reached one of the train doors and flung it open, leapt swiftly onto the concrete platform and started to walk. She did not bother to wait for Mary in the latter’s more careful efforts at disembarking. Olive proceeded past the small gathering of adults and children who had already left the train, heading for the wooden steps at the end of the platform that led to the single, dusty road, which appeared to lead to nowhere. Mary was not sure what Olive was planning to do next, but Olive was not renowned for her powers of foresight. Mary decided that she would work out what to do when Olive was less preoccupied with escaping. But Olive’s independent journey was not destined to last.
“And where do you think you’re going, Missy?” asked a voice, and Olive felt a hand on her shoulder, halting her.
Olive turned around angrily, and brushed the hand off her shoulder. Who dared to stop her, Olive Whackitt, from doing exactly as she wished? Who dared handle her? Who dared call her ‘Missy’? Who dared even speak to her? In answer, Olive found herself glaring into the hard, unmistakeable face of a billeting officer.
The old woman frowned down at Olive. What an odd little girl, she thought to herself. She did not say this out loud, but simply repeated her previous question: “Where do you think you’re going?”
“The countryside,” Olive answered promptly, peering curiously up at the billeting officer’s uncomprehending face as she gestured to the vast area around her. Of course, this woman was clearly stupid.
The officer raised her eyebrows. “You’re already in the countryside, Missy. I hope you’re not planning on simply marching off by yourself?”
Olive frowned, unclear on what else the officer expected her to do. “Yes, Ma’am,” she said with the kind of authority she had heard from policemen on the streets of London. “I don’t know any of those people. I believe I shall go my own way, Ma’am.”
Olive beckoned to Mary before turning to leave again, but she was once again stopped. “What, a little girl like you? Don’t be silly!” said the officer, smiling.
Olive stared at the woman. Was it just her, or was this woman…was this woman actually laughing at her? “Don’t laugh at me!” Olive said angrily, stamping her foot on the ground, an action of pure improvisation which had not been witnessed from any policeman. “I am not a little girl! As a matter of fact, I’m a lot taller than Mary; look!”
“Yes, and I’m not little!” Mary piped up. “I’m five and eleven-twelfths!”
“Yes, and I’m bigger than lots and lots of people!” Olive continued, determined that this woman would overcome her low intelligence and understand Olive’s point. “I’m taller than Edith James from down the road, aren’t I, Mary? And Alice Reynolds?”
“Everyone’s taller than Alice Reynolds,” Mary pointed out.
“Yes, but I’m lots taller than her,” Olive gabbled. “And I’m…”
“Now, now, that’s quite enough!” the officer said sternly. She was starting to rather dislike this little girl. “Nonsense, I won’t hear of a little thing like you going off on her own.”
“I’m not little!” Olive insisted, her voice rising. This was getting ridiculous now.
“Now, stop arguing with me!” said the officer. “I know you’re very upset about having to leave your parents, but that’s no excuse for bad behaviour! Now, you will come over with me back to the platform.”
Olive was too surprised to say anything more, or even to protest. Usually, if she were at home, this would be the point where her mother would begin quaking and looking faint as Olive’s voice grew angrier and louder, and she would give her five-year-old daughter whatever it was that she was demanding. But before Olive could say anything more, the officer had grabbed her tightly by the wrist and was hustling her back over to the platform. Mary apparently had no option but to follow.
“Let go!” Olive cried crossly, struggling.
However, the officer simply refused to let go of her wrist, and whilst Olive was busy contemplating whether the situation was serious enough for her to allow herself to bite the woman’s hand, she had been dragged back to the area where a group of ordinary-looking people stood, examining the funny identification labels that the children were wearing. The officer stayed hanging on to Olive, and Mary was standing closely by.
A few adults looked over in the direction of the two little girls, their faces enquiring and temporarily hopeful, but their gazes soon withdrew when they were confronted by the fierce expression of the scruffy girl with the blonde pigtails twisting her wrist around in the officer’s hand in an effort to get free. Meanwhile, the billeting officer surveyed the crowd, watching carefully as adults occasionally selected certain groups of tearful but normal-looking children. Olive and Mary, who were neither tearful nor normal, were not among them.