“Right, children!” bellowed the tall, angry-looking farmer’s wife. “Quieten down now! Quickly, come along! Children, please! I’m getting a headache from all of this noise, and my throat will hurt if I have to keep shouting!”
But the children around her showed no signs of quietening down. The pale elder boy in the posh clothes standing in the corner was still complaining loudly about the amount of dirt in the kitchen, the girl whom she presumed was his sister was still shuddering and shrieking as she spotted various colonies of long-legged spiders daggling from cobwebs in certain corners of the room. The two scruffy little girls were making a fair bit of noise for such small children; the blonde girl was shouting rather than talking to her friend, who in turn was squealing with excitement as she gazed at something long and made of metal in her bag. The three little boys standing by the oven were the only ones who were remotely quiet. In fact, they were gazing around the room with wide eyes and mouths, as though awestruck.
It was several hours since Olive and Mary had been escorted back to the platform by the billeting officer. It had been only an hour or so before it became evident that the only children who remained on the platform after the prospective foster parents were left were the two girls, the Whinging brothers and the Rowlings children. And the farmer’s wife, Mrs. Baxter, was already beginning to regret the offer she had made to take in any rejected evacuees, despite the promise from the village vicar that any volunteers would be guaranteed eternal salvation for doing so.
“Take a look, Augustus!” Frederick breathed, though Mrs. Baxter could not hear him over the noise. “Look at the size of those tiles on the floor! Oh, and Adolphus, look how high those windows are! Do you think they’re more than six feet off the ground?”
The woman blinked for a split second, but then she dismissed any questions she was about to ask herself and threw back her head. “SILENCE!” she shouted at the top of her lungs.
There was a short silence in the whole room. “Well, you could have just asked us to be quiet,” mumbled Mary Maggott, staring at the floor.
“Don’t be impertinent, little girl,” Mrs. Baxter snapped, glaring down at Mary before facing all of the children. “Right, I’m Mrs. Baxter, and I want to lay down some rules before we all start living together.”
Olive and Mary frowned at the unfamiliar word ‘rules’. Albert and Priscilla rolled their eyes in exasperation, all the while telling themselves that of course these common rules would not apply to them. Frederick, Augustus and Adolphus, of course, just looked amazed. Anyway, none of the children were sure that they liked the look of the woman in front of them at all. She was significantly taller than the aOlivege woman and her face was perpetually cross, and her red nose was so flat that it looked as though her face had once collided with something very hard at a very high speed. But it was her head that was the strangest thing of all: if Mrs. Baxter had been a silhouette, she may have looked simply like an enlarged heart that had happened to grow a body, because on either side of her face she had two enormous bundles of pale, wispy red hair, each containing a number of wide grey streaks. But also, because there was a large parting between the two mounds, it looked as though the heart had been violently sliced down through the middle and now lay in two parts. Anyway, she was standing in the centre of the kitchen, talking in a piercingly loud voice, just to make sure that they could hear her. On the whole, Mrs. Baxter was rather intimidating.
“Now, I’m not used to having children running around the farm, so you’ll all have to be on your best behaviour,” said Mrs. Baxter, drawing herself up to her full height so that the children had to crane their necks to see her face properly. “I won’t have any children running about thinking they can do whatever they want. There’s a war going on, you know.”
Albert muttered something about being perfectly aware of the situation, but Mrs. Baxter managed not to hear him and continued to speak. In the middle of one of her sentences, she took out a long, long piece of paper filled with tiny writing all the way down to the bottom. Olive and Mary, who were not yet able to read, were curious about this, as they could not read the words ‘house rules’ at the top of the paper.
“Rule number one!” she hollered, scanning the faces of all of the children to make sure that they were paying her every little bit of attention. “No breaking of any of the rules. Rule number two: no contradicting any of the rules. Rule number three: no arguing with Mrs. Baxter about any of the rules. Rule number four: no forging altered copies of any of the rules…”
It went on and on and on in the same format. Mary was the first to realise that although Mrs. Baxter was reading out an awful lot of rules, all of them seemed to be to do with not changing or arguing about the rules, but she could not hear any actual rules herself. She peered quizzically at Mrs. Baxter as she proceeded to read out ‘rule number fifty-nine: no attempts to ignite any piece of paper or other mode of documentation holding the rules’, spraying little spots of saliva onto the paper. Then, very slowly, she raised her hand in the air, seeing that Mrs. Baxter had very nearly reached the end of the piece of paper.
“Yes, little girl?” Mrs. Baxter boomed.
“Are there actually any rules?” Mary asked innocently. “You know, any proper rules?”
“What?” barked Mrs. Baxter. “Are you being rude, girl? I just read out fifty-nine rules to you! And there’s only one left to go!”
“But….all of them seem to do with not doing anything to the rules,” Mary said, blinking innocently. “Except…so far, I haven’t heard any.”
Mrs. Baxter glared at Mary. “Well, if you would have waited just one more second, your question might have been answered, and we would have avoided this useless conversation!” she snapped. “Now, if you would care to keep silent, I will read out the one rule that you must always obey, never break, never…”
“Yes?” Mary said cheerfully, just before Olive elbowed her to be quiet. She didn’t want to hear all fifty-nine sort-of rules again.
Mrs. Baxter took a deep breath before reading out the all-important sixtieth rule: “Rule number sixty: children must always behave.”
The kitchen was quiet for a minute as Mrs. Baxter allowed the effect of this magnificent statement to sink in. The quiet, however, was not to last. Suddenly the floor started to shake. The cups and pails and things which sat on the parlour’s large wooden table started to rattle and jiggle about, and Mrs. Baxter instantly had to fly over to prevent a carving knife from falling off the side. A quick, steady, flat beat started up, making the floor vibrate violently, and the sound grew longer and louder with every passing second. Mrs. Baxter’s face was blank, as though she was accustomed to this sort of thing happening, but most of the children looked terrified. Priscilla squealed and clutched at Albert, who in turn just stood, shell-shocked, with his mouth open and his eyes wide. Frederick, Augustus and Adolphus each screamed piercingly. Frederick screeched “Earthquake!”, Augustus screeched “Volcano!”, and Adolphus screeched “Hurricane!”.
Olive Whackitt stood in the middle of the parlour with her arms folded, sucking her teeth. Mary Maggott looked around inquisitively, with a mere curious look on her face.
“Oooh, I wonder what that funny noise is,” Mary said.
“Don’t be silly!” Mrs. Baxter snapped. “That, children, is the man of the house.”
The children looked even more shocked than before, as at that point, a very strange person stepped – or rather ducked – into the room. He was even taller than the woman to his left and almost as round, and the two strange puffs of pale brown hair which were split down the middle on his head suggested that he was trying to copy her hairstyle. The children stared at this man, terrified, and even the wide grin on his fat, red face would not allay their fears.
The man, who was in fact Mr. Baxter, attempted to enter the room gracefully by keeping his head down away from the doorframe, but I am sorry to say that after several decades of attempting this exact same thing, Mr. Baxter still managed to miscalculate his own height next to the height of the door. There was a loud thud, almost as heavy as his footsteps, as his head struck the top of the door frame.
The man said “Ooof!” loudly as the impact occurred, and then cursed quietly, which merited him a sharp smack on the head from his wife
“Lionel!” Mrs. Baxter shrieked. “I told you about swearing in the house this morning! What are you playing at, saying such things in front of children?”
“I already knew that word,” Olive muttered, scuffing her shoes in boredom. Like Albert, she was careful to be inaudible, anxious to hear the argument between the two adults.
“Sorry, Muriel,” the man said cheerfully, rubbing his head. The broad grin did not disappear from his face.
“Don’t blame the door, silly man! A poor workman always blames his tools,” Mrs. Baxter declared authoritatively. “Can you walk through the door once without banging that stupid empty head of yours? How do you suppose to come across to the children? You look like the village idiot!”
Mr. Baxter might have been about to say something else, but his eye then caught the children for the first time. The wide grin spread across his face once more. “Oh, look at them, Muriel!” he squealed. “Ooh, look how sweet they all are! Oh, aren’t they adorable! Muriel, oh Muriel, they’re so lovely!”
“Hmm, of course,” Mrs. Baxter said blankly. She didn’t look as though she thought any of the children to be remotely lovely.
“Look at this little cherub!” Mr. Baxter cried, walking up to Mary with more of his pounding footsteps and lightly patting her head with an enormous, rough hand. He turned then to Olive’s scowling face. “And this blondie; isn’t she lovely? Now, how could no one want either of you two, eh? And these three fine little lads here! Handsome fellows indeed! And you, sweetheart, what’s your name?”
“Priscilla,” said Priscilla blankly, keeping her arms defensively folded and edging closer to Albert.
“Lovely, lovely!” Mr. Baxter cooed. He looked at Albert. “And you, young man, you’re rather dashing, aren’t you? How old are you?”
“Nine,” Albert said, just as blank as his sister. But he could not resist. “Almost ten, actually. I am the eldest child of Lord and Lady Rowlings, actually, so I’m due to inherit a great estate in London some day, several times the size of this old place. Oh, but no offence to you, I know that you country folk would be very proud of a, err, place like this. What a lovely farm it is as well.”
“Well, it’s nice to see you so enthusiastic, lad!” said Mr. Baxter. “I do take a great deal of pride in this farm of mine; a fine place it is as well. Oh, I do pity you, inheriting one of those great big city estates when you could be out here!”
Albert looked shocked, and opened his mouth to say more, but Mrs. Baxter interrupted him. “Yes, Lionel, don’t get too friendly with them just yet,” she snapped. “I’ve just finished explaining the rules.”
“Ah, yes, you do love your rules, don’t you, Muriel?” Mr. Baxter said cheerfully.
“Children need discipline, Lionel,” Mrs. Baxter said.
“We haven’t done anything yet!” Albert said crossly.
“Well, son, I think you’ll find you have been rather impertinent in these few minutes you’ve been here!” Mrs. Baxter cried. “And as far as I am concerned, that is a breach of rule sixty: ‘children must always behave’!”
“Well, that rule’s not very specific,” Albert muttered quietly.
“What was that?” Mrs. Baxter said threateningly.
Albert sighed. Why had he been dumped with such stupid and disrespectful people? “Nothing,” he muttered, folding his arms. Well, he’d rise above their pathetic and self-absorbed behaviour by not wasting his breath talking to them anymore.
“Well, Muriel, the rule could be a bit more specific,” Mr. Baxter admitted. “Oh, but Muriel, you surely must think them all adorable!”
“I have no opinion of them just yet,” said Mrs. Baxter flatly. “I shall have to see how they choose to conduct themselves whilst staying in my house.”
Mr. Baxter ignored her words. “Oh, Muriel! Let’s get the camera and take a photograph of them! Oh, can we? Oh, do! It will be a keepsake always for us; the time when we had the pleasure of having seven gorgeous little angels in our house!”
“I’m not little!” Olive growled furiously. Honestly, she was getting a bit sick of this now. “Mary’s little, but I’m not!”
“What?” yelped Mary.
“Do not argue with Mr. Baxter!” Mrs. Baxter snapped, wagging her finger in Olive’s face. Olive was very tempted to kick her shins, but just about managed to restrain herself.
Mr. Baxter was still jumping around the parlour in excitement, causing the china cups and plates in the cabinet to rattle precariously. “The camera! The camera!”
“Oh, very well, if it will only get you to shut your mouth,” Mrs. Baxter mumbled almost inaudibly; only Olive and Mary heard her. She turned to the maid standing in the corner. “Mabel, would you fetch the camera and have it set up in the garden, please?”
“Yes, Mrs. Baxter,” said Mabel, scurrying off into the hallway.
Ten minutes later, the children had been hurried out into a very large garden. Olive, glancing around carelessly, saw a number of very strange things, like big mounds of earth with green things growing in them, a smelly run containing a number of odd feathery bird-like creatures, and an ugly-looking construction with a rounded roof that seemed to be made from sheets of rusty metal. Beyond the wonky wooden fence which enclosed the garden were what seemed like miles of vast field space filled with trees and spontaneous patches of long yellow grass, where, far away, the children could see a large, dark, ferocious-looking creature, similar to a cow aside from the large horns, looming on the horizon.
Mary, standing beside Olive, had been quicker in taking in the scene, and now stood scuffing her shoes.
“Do not do that!” Mrs. Baxter told her sternly, surveying the scene with a satisfied sort of expression. She turned to Albert. “You boy, don’t stand there with that miserable-looking face. And that girl, your sister, tell her to stop squawking and wafting the air like that; they’re only flies. And you, the boy in the middle, will you stop measuring the cabbage leaves?”
Reluctantly, Albert’s scowl grew slightly smaller, Priscilla waved her arms about more gently and shrieked a little more quietly, and Frederick sadly put his ruler back into his pocket. Mary stopped scuffing her shoes, and watched tiredly as Mabel and Mr. Baxter prepared the camera for use.
“This is boring!” Olive complained, having finished her inspection of the garden and its surroundings.
“Don’t complain!” Mrs. Baxter asked. “You are very lucky, little girl, and next time you complain about something, imagine how the soldiers feel out at the Front, in danger of losing their lives every passing day! Be thankful for what you have, and for what the Lord hath giveth you.”
Olive glared at the ground. She didn’t know what the ‘Front’ was. She hadn’t seen any soldiers out at the front of the house. Mrs. Baxter must be going mad. Olive had never known that grown-ups could see imaginary people.
“What are your imaginary friends called, Mrs. Baxter?” Olive asked curiously, but Mrs. Baxter was not listening; she was now shouting at Mr. Baxter for polishing the camera lens in the wrong direction.
“Sorry, Muriel,” said Mr. Baxter. “I’m nearly ready now; I promise. Oh! Wait a minute, what’s this? Oh! Oh, goodness! Muriel, what does it mean when this bit falls off? Does that mean it’s working?”
Olive opened her mouth to scream. She’d been standing out here for over five minutes now, and if it weren’t for the warm setting sun and the cloudless sky it would be freezing cold. She wasn’t even interested in watching Mrs. Baxter shout at her husband for his stupidity.
But thankfully, Mary saw what was coming, and just in time she clamped her hand over Olive’s mouth. She wasn’t particularly in the mood for a ferocious battle between Olive and Mrs. Baxter.
Olive angrily pushed Mary’s hand away, but the scream had been diverted. On an even brighter side, the camera was finally ready just over half an hour later.
“Remember, children, stand still for ten seconds,” Mrs. Baxter instructed rather tiredly, just as Mr. Baxter was opening his mouth to say the same thing.
Ten seconds later, Mrs. Baxter was shouting again. “Albert and Priscilla, you have ruined that photograph! There you are, standing apart from everyone else with those silly snobbish expressions on your faces! And as for you three boys, you just look ridiculous. Mary, will you stop reaching into that bag of yours? And Olive, try and look a little less grumpy, for Heaven’s sake!”
“It took too long,” Olive complained. “I can’t smile for ten seconds! I’d look like an idiot!”
“I think it was quite a nice photograph,” said Mr. Baxter thoughtfully, examining a part of the camera that was wobbling unstably. “It captures their true personalities.”
“Hmm,” said Mrs. Baxter, not listening. “Lionel, do another one; a nice one this time! Albert, Priscilla, move up closer to Adolphus. Without the silly expression, please!”
Priscilla shuddered as she found herself coming within inches of Adolphus’ filthy sleeve.
“You three boys, try and look a little less astonished. Just smile!”
Frederick, Augustus and Adolphus managed to tear their eyes away from the chicken pen.
“And you, Olive, smile! And you, Mary, leave your bag alone!”
Olive put on a ridiculously-wide smile just so that Mrs. Baxter would shut her mouth. Mary stopped fingering the barrel of the gun in her bag, and she too smiled, looking remarkably pleasant.
“Now, that will make a nice picture!” breathed Mrs. Baxter, standing back to admire the perfect view. “Lionel, quick, take another picture! Hurry!”
“All right then,” Mr. Baxter said, but Olive could see that he looked a bit muddled up.
Mabel tried to assist him in re-adjusting the camera, but the slight movement seemed to interfere with one of the stands, unfortunately one of the ones that happened to be holding up the rest of the odd contraption. Mr. Baxter dived to save a piece of something from breaking on the ground, but as he did so he loosened his grip on the rest of the camera, and, Mabel not being quick enough to save it, the results were disastrous.
“Lionel! I said take another photograph!” Mrs. Baxter barked shrilly, still facing the children, just as the whole piece of machinery came crashing to the ground, practically burying Mr. Baxter and Mabel as it did so.
About an hour later, an angry Mrs. Baxter dumped a steaming plate in front of Olive. Olive was the first of the children to receive her dinner, and she stared with curiosity at the plate’s contents. All that her dinner seemed to be comprised of were moving bubbling lumps of something suspicious covered in a gloopy, sticky-looking dark-brown liquid. Olive stared as the horrible substance continued to steam and bubble, thinking that nothing on Earth could be more unappetising. She grimaced, and poked disgustedly at the mess with her fork.
“What’s this slop?” Olive asked loudly.
“I beg your pardon?” barked Mrs. Baxter. “Young lady, my stew is not slop! How dare you! Don’t you think you ought to be more grateful? Our Lord hath provideth us with this feast. It’s very healthy and nutritious, and it’ll fatten you puny city children up.”
There was a pause as Mrs. Baxter glanced towards the Whinging brothers, who clearly did not need fattening up at all. Even they, with their love of food, did not look too impressed as their own portions were placed in front of them.
Mrs. Baxter, with help from Mabel, soon finished serving everyone, and took her place at the other end of the table. After a muttered prayer, which apparently none of the children were previously accustomed to, Mrs. Baxter began to eat her food. Over at the other end of the table, the children watched as Mr. Baxter grabbed his fork and immediately began shovelling huge mouthfuls of food into his mouth. His plateful started to rapidly disappear, and a line of brown drool dribbled down his chin. Albert and Priscilla both looked green. This was even worse than watching the Whinging brothers gobble down their sandwiches. Much worse.
“I can’t eat this,” Albert gagged, just as Olive thought he must be about to be sick. “I…I just can’t. Do you not eat anything nice in the country, like caviar?”
“Caviar?” said Mr. Baxter wonderingly, finishing his plateful. “Mabel, would you fetch me some seconds?”
“Caviar?” Mrs. Baxter similarly wondered. “Whatever do you mean, boy?”
“You know, caviar,” said Albert. “Fish eggs.”
“Fish eggs?” cried Mrs. Baxter. “Ugh! Disgusting! Who in their right mind would want to eat fish eggs?”
“My parents; Lord and Lady Rowlings,” Albert started. “And….”
“I don’t want it, either!” Olive interrupted.
“Oh, don’t tell me: you don’t want these fish eggs as well, do you?” said Mrs. Baxter tiredly, finishing a mouthful of stew. “What else, eels? Sheep intestines? Horse hoofs? I won’t have that sort of thing in my kitchen.”
“I don’t want fish eggs!” Olive cried. “I want normal food! Food that doesn’t move, or look like vomit!”
“Olive!” shouted Mrs. Baxter. “We are eating! Do not use words like that at the table! And whilst you are in my house you will eat my food!”
“I didn’t choose to come here!” Olive muttered quietly to Mary. “That nasty lady made us!”
“…And another thing!” Mrs. Baxter continued. “You will be grateful for your food, and you will eat it all up.”
Olive stared at Mrs. Baxter, and then back at the horrible mess on her plate. She had to be joking. It must be cruelty to force a poor girl like her to eat this disgusting rubbish.
Mary seemed to be similarly disgusted by her portion, but Olive could also see that she was thinking of something. Not risking asking Mary what she was thinking, Olive just watched her.
Mary, looking under the table, hadn’t noticed before that the Baxters were perfectly happy to allow their large farm dogs, all of which were cross-breeds with fairly stupid faces, to eat in the same room as them. Under the table very close to Mary’s feet was a large dog bowl, and the animal sitting beside it under the table had apparently finished what form of food had been placed there. It looked like a sort of sheep dog crossed with some kind of mongrel, and was looking extremely dismayed. But when it noticed Mary’s curious face staring into its eyes, its tongue hung out of its mouth and it banged its tail against the floor hopefully. Mary looked up, and gestured with her head to the dog bowl. Olive smiled.
“Not all at once!” Mary mouthed at her friend when Mrs. Baxter was not looking. Mary demonstrated what she meant; placing a small amount of stew into the spoon beside her plate and then slightly bending so that she could reach down and pour it into the dog bowl. The dog looked delighted – Mary had thought that dogs ate things like meat, but obviously whichever source had told her this was wrong. And Olive, checking first to ensure that Mrs. Baxter was suitably preoccupied with shouting at her husband about the way he was holding his spoon, copied.
It took about twenty minutes for the meal to be over, and during that time, Olive and Mary had found enough occasions where Mrs. Baxter was not watching them to spoon more and more of the stew into the dog bowl, until finally they had empty plates.
Suddenly, peering at their plates, Mrs. Baxter’s face contorted into a funny expression a little like a smile. “There we are!” she said triumphantly. “I knew you’d like it once you’d tried it! Now that’s what you call food, children!”
“Yes,” Olive muttered lazily.
“Right!” Mrs. Baxter said, standing up abruptly. “Now, children, first we’ll wash up, and then it’s time for bed!”
“What!?” shrieked Olive. “What do you mean, time for bed? We haven’t even had pudding!”
“Pudding?” said Mr. Baxter hopefully. “Ooh! Muriel, you said we weren’t to have pudding until the war was over!”
“We’re not!” Mrs. Baxter snapped. “No more complaining from you, young Olive. You never know; one of these days I may be inclined to put you in the cellar, and let me assure you, young lady, it is not a very pleasant place to be!”
Olive rolled her eyes. Honestly, what had she done now? “When are we having pudding?” she asked tiredly.
“We are not, and you would know if you had been listening!” Mrs. Baxter said, picking up her plate and Albert’s. “Mabel, help me with the plates. Now, Olive, you will go to bed and I shall just have to hope that you are a lot better behaved tomorrow. But first, come into the kitchen, and you will all help with the washing up.”
Albert and Priscilla were so astonished that they did not even manage to say anything. Meanwhile, Mabel had scurried into the room and was clearing away a few plates, smiling admiringly at Olive and Mary for ‘finishing’ their portions.
“None of that just yet, Mabel,” said Mrs. Baxter. “They’re not done, yet. They’re going to help with the washing up. Into the kitchen, children, quickly.”
Olive could scarcely believe what a terrible day she had had. Now, she was lying in a tiny, narrow, lumpy bed, in the same horrid room as Mary, who was wriggling about constantly and making the bed creak, and Priscilla, who had been weeping for about half an hour but who was now snoring loudly. Plus, Olive could swear she could hear the Whinging brothers whispering excitedly about something in the next room, and Albert whispering back at them angrily.
Olive had spent a disgusting few minutes scraping brown muck off plates into a large basin, whilst Mary, shuddering, wiped at them with a sponge alongside an already-weeping Priscilla, whilst Albert and the Whinging brothers wiped at the wet plates with ragged cloths. All the while, Mrs. Baxter had been standing over them sternly, not really seeming to be actually doing anything herself. She just sniffed and complained and flicked her hair about, and as Olive became angrier and angrier she felt like screaming at Mrs. Baxter.
And the children were equally heartbroken to find that there was not even to be any sort of reward for their hard efforts. In fact, Mrs. Baxter had commented that tomorrow they would need to “try much harder”, just because one measly little plate had slipped from Adolphus’ grasp whilst he was drying it. Then, of course, Albert and Priscilla had kicked up a fuss about first of all having to share rooms with the other children, and secondly, not even being able to be in the same room as one another under the circumstances. Oh, but first Mrs. Baxter had made them put tape in criss-cross patterns on the windows for some reason, and then she insisted that they put up black boards on them, blocking out all the light, and letting no one from outside see into the house. She must be self-conscious, Albert thought. He didn’t blame her, what with the pig sty she lives in.
Mary, however, was trying to be positive. “Well, think of it like this,” she began whilst they were supposed to be asleep. “We’ve done all of the horrid stuff today, so that must mean that there’s only nice stuff left to do tomorrow! So we’ll probably get to play in the fields and bathe in the sea and eat nice food tomorrow!”
“Oh, yes!” cried Olive. Of course; how silly she had been! “So it is like an adventure after all!”
“Yes!” said Mary, grinning at Olive, before Priscilla abruptly woke up and hissed at them to be quiet right now; she was trying to sleep.
The next morning, the seven children were sitting forlornly in a make-shift classroom in part of the farm’s old barn. Olive and Mary sat in front of some kind of large crate, big enough to accommodate two, whilst sitting on two piles of bricks from the parlour. The Whinging boys sat close to one another on upturned milk pails in front of separate desks; proper desks that were left over at the old village school. The Rowlings children sat in front of a large work bench on small stools.
After breakfast, which to the children had consisted of milk from their glasses, whilst the disgusting runny porridge had been spooned into the dog bowl, Mrs. Baxter had informed the children that today they were going to have some lessons, and wasn’t that lovely, that they didn’t have to miss out on their education just because of this war, that the Lord hath pitieth them?
Olive and Mary, who had not yet ever been to school, just stood and stared. They were not very sure what school was, exactly, but from what they had heard said by the schoolboys living in their road back in London, ‘school’ was a horrible place where terrible people called ‘teachers’ encouraged some strange, unspeakable evil called ‘learning’ to happen. And if there was one thing that Olive hated, it was adults encouraging her to learn. They weren’t sure that they wanted to try this.
They especially were not sure they wanted to try this when a tall, skinny, long-nosed old woman walked into the room, wrote some strange symbols on the blackboard before announcing herself as Miss March.
“Now, children, I’ve just come to assess your progress before you join the village school with the other children,” Miss March announced grandly.
“Boring,” Olive muttered, slumping at her desk. Would this madness never end?
“Don’t interrupt!” Miss March cried, stepping up to Olive’s desk and wagging a finger in her face, like Mrs. Baxter had done the day before. “Or I shall have you sent out of this room! So, children, before I was rudely interrupted, where were we? Ahh, yes, the ARE YOU YAWNING, PRISCILLA? Really….well, try and stretch your mouth muscles outside my lessons. Anyway, children, the concept of education in the countryside when you are so used to IN GOD’S NAME, OLIVE, STOP POKING ADOLPHUS THIS INSTANT! Yes, so, in the country, all we must do is FREDERICK, GET YOUR LEG OFF THE TABLE! I don’t care if your trouser legs are uneven!”
The morning went on in roughly this way for the whole time. When, after Miss March had sharply asked them a few questions they were unable to answer, Olive and Mary told her they had never been to school, and were instantly put in the bottom class, much to their outrage and profound humiliation. The same thing happened to Frederick, Augustus and Adolphus. However, Albert and Priscilla, whose parents had been able to hire some of the finest tutors in the county back in London, were very much advanced, and consequently were put in the top class over the course of the morning.
By the time that Miss March, who to Olive and Mary’s immense disappointment would be teaching the bottom class, finished her evaluation and dismissed her little class, the children had been sitting in the part of the barn for over three hours, and were looking forward to some long-expected free time.
They should have known better. Mrs. Baxter, as soon as she spotted them leaving the barn, ran out of the parlour, wearing a wet apron and turban around her enormous hairstyle so that the sweep of dusty material, still shaped like two halves of a heart, was larger than her actual head. She immediately headed straight for the girls.
“Olive! Mary! Priscilla!” she barked. “Come along, quickly! We have the laundry to do!”
Olive and Mary groaned so loudly and for such a long time that Mrs. Baxter turned and glared at them ferociously. Albert tittered in spite of his sister’s fate, though his smile disappeared when he was told by Mr. Baxter and the farm boys to help clear the horse manure out of the stables before emptying the chamber pot in his bedroom.
Olive and Mary had all but given up on their chances of having an adventure in the countryside as they knelt beside the wash board and tub, whilst Priscilla shrieked and refused to touch things, and Olive found mysterious undergarments swimming in the milky water.
“Just get on with it,” Mrs. Baxter said tiredly, each time there was a protestation.
But Olive’s spirits were slightly higher that evening as they helped Mabel, yet again, with the washing-up.
Olive smiled and peered at Mary’s face. “We’ll just have to make our own fun!” she whispered excitedly.
Mary looked at her. This was one of Olive’s favourite phrases, but usually when she said it, something very mischievous which usually got the girls into trouble happened. They had been in trouble with Mary’s strict grandmother after they had decided to throw eggs down into the street below their windows, and several people with messy, sticky hairstyles had come knocking on the door and shouting furiously. They had been in trouble with the angry shop-keeper across the road when they turned on all the water pumps and almost flooded the entire street, ruining business for him. They had even managed to get in trouble with a stern-looking police officer when they decided to go out and make horrific faces at passing vehicles.
“What sort of fun?” Mary asked anxiously, squeezing the water out of Mrs. Baxter’s enormous night cap.
Olive just smiled at her. “You’ll see!” she said mysteriously.