Five Boys Extracts

Rehearsals for evacuation

The children were led off row by row, like knitting unravelling – a great chain of children rattling through the gates, out onto the pavements and picking up speed as they went along. They marched past the park and up the high street; marched by the open market and the old Town Hall. Neighbours waved. Shopkeepers stood and watched from their doorways. And when Mr Morely strode out into the road and raised his rolled-up brolly the traffic slowed to a halt, as if now that the children were finally moving, there was no easy way of stopping them.

Mr Morely led them up and down the street in one long conga, but eventually turned into the yard of a bus depot, where the children were shuffled into rows again. The ground was black and tacky underfoot from engine oil, and across the yard five coaches waited with their doors open, as if ready to race away.

At Paddington Station, the children were led off the coaches and lined up on one of the platforms, where they stood and watched the trains shunt in and out under the great wide roof. After twenty minutes some women in armbands came round, with trays of buns and mugs of tea. Then the children were led back onto the coaches and driven home again.

On the Tuesday Bobby had a much better idea what the day ahead had in store and worked out that by keeping his eyes on the heels of the boy in front could keep in step with him. The drive across the city was hot but uneventful, the bun on the station platform was much the same as the one before and when he got back home he couldn’t tell whether his mother was genuinely surprised to see him or was in on the whole charade.

On the Wednesday it occurred to Bobby that the rest of his school years might consist of nothing but endless rehearsals for evacuation – year upon year of marching through the streets (which would be good practice for being, say, a postman) and sitting on coaches (which would be no use at all). But as they left the playground on that third day he spotted his mother and some other women on the other side of the road and as the children marched along behind Mr Morely’s brolly the women crept from lamp-post to lamp-post, as if they were spying on them, or had been warned not to get too close. Bobby tried to keep his eyes on the boy in front but couldn’t help glancing over at his mother. She didn’t wave – as if it was just a coincidence that she and Bobby were marching along the same streets – but when they reached the depot and were herded onto the coaches, all the mothers suddenly rushed across the yard.

The engines started up. The mothers knocked on the windows and passed little keepsakes through to their children – sweets, handkerchiefs, anything. Bobby’s mum reached up and pressed a penny into his hand. He was going to put it in his pocket, but she wouldn’t let go. It wasn’t until he was tucked up on a stranger’s sofa later that day that Bobby realized that the penny wasn’t important. What was important was her holding his hand. And when she finally let go she just stood there crying. Crying like Bobby had never seen her cry before…

American soldiers are invited to a dance at the village hall

As Miss Pye told her customers the following morning, ‘They wouldn’t waltz and they wouldn’t foxtrot. All the Americans wanted to do was jitterbug.’

The GIs had had the foresight to bring along their own box of records and, within minutes, had commandeered the gramophone. The noise which proceeded to pump out of the speaker sounded to the local women like nothing but a mad, chaotic clatter. They hadn’t a clue how they were meant to dance to it and were a little embarrassed by the utter abandonment with which their dance partners began to hurl themselves about. After a life long governed by the dead reckoning of the ration-book this expenditure of energy alone seemed rash, extravagant. But as the evening settled into its own tempo it became apparent that whatever was loose in the room, far from dissipating, was positively multiplying itself.

The women slowly gave in to the push and pull of their partners, began to swing from hand to hand; found the lurch and smack in the music and forgot to worry what they must look like or where their feet should be. To be turned and handled so ably rekindled in them all sorts of warmth and kindnesses. The American men seemed amazingly at home in their bodies. No Englishman, thought Sylvia Crouch, could ever dance like that. There was nothing pinched or sour about them and the longer the night went on the more it seemed that everything about these men – their eyes, their hair, their skin – was shining, as if they had been warmed by a brighter sun…