So much changed that Autumn. Dad thought that the world had ended, but Mum pulled him round. Rationing started, but we didn't notice much at first, or at least, I didn't. Joyce complained that her make-up had disappeared from the shops. She was trying to impress some young man, I think. As a young lad, I wasn't so interested at the time, as long as she kept quiet about my own escapades. It's always amazing when some boy gets keen on your sister.
I had just finished a summer at Barnes & Co, Gentlemen's Outfitters. All I did was pack and unpack clothes, hang them up, and occasionally steam them. I learned which tie went with which shirt, and how to fold clothes. I can say that this was useful later when I needed to steam and press my uniform, but at the time I was bored to distraction. The year before I had been at Orrendale's Butchers, helping to deliver meat. At least then I got out and about a bit.
Anyway, all too soon we were back at school and starting on the Highers. There were air raid drills and gas drills, and solemn notices to cover lights as the nights drew in. After the third or fourth drill Peter and I started to play silly buggers and mess about. Then my Dad got to hear about it. Instead of giving me a flea in my ear, Dad took me for a walk.
He was quiet for a while, then started discussing the weather.
"Turning cold, there's a nip in the air."
"...It was cold when I first went to France..."
I stiffened a little. I knew he wasn't talking about a holiday. Dad almost never talked about his time in the Great War.
"We had to do gas drills as well, and all the young lads thought it was a waste of time, but the older regulars knew different."
He stopped and looked at me. "The sergeant forced us to do it over and over again, until we could put the gas masks on in the dark." He started to get a faraway look in his eye. "I was so glad of that when the first gas shells landed."
I was amazed. Dad had never let on that he had been under a gas attack before.
"We all got our masks on and were ready for jerry when he turned up. We were beaten back, but it wasn't the disaster it might have been."
His thoughts turned back to the present, as he looked directly at me once more. "So, Charles, do your old man a favour, and learn your gas drills."
I paused, then mumbled, "I will, Dad."
It went easier after that. We talked more about the situation. Joe had shipped out to France, with the new rank of Sergeant. He'd not had time for some home leave, so we only heard this in a letter. I saw that Dad was worried, and tried my best to cheer him up.
"It's going to be hard," said Dad, "We're going to be short of a lot of things."
Then he leaned closer to me, and dropped his voice, "...and if it goes on too long, they'll be coming to enlist you too."
Me? I'd never thought of it. I was only sixteen, and didn't know anything. I swallowed at the prospect. Then I looked back at Dad, and saw that some of his worry was for me, not just for Joe as I had thought earlier. When we got back home, I felt different. I'd grown up a little.
That winter was cold. I'd never seen so much snow for so long before. We all had to wrap up. Coal was in short supply, but nowhere near as bad as it got the next year. I don't remember Christmas much, except that Joe wasn't there.
My seventeenth birthday arrived, and a few days later, so did a big brown envelope from the War Dept. I was to report to some hospital in Finsbury Park for a medical a week later. This had happened to Peter a couple of months earlier, as he was older than me.
"So what happens?" I asked him.
"They poke and prod you for a bit, and then send you home. I've not heard anything since."
So the day came, and I caught the train with some anxiety. I joined a queue of lads, all my age. At first we didn't say much, but then chatted nervously. It was just like before the exams at school, but this was a different type of exam.
They called us in as small groups, took names, and told us to wait. The whole place smelled of disinfectant. Then the names were called one by one at intervals of a few minutes. We weren't called in alphabetical order.
"Briggs, C. Room 6" I heard, and got up and walked down the corridor.
The doctor took my name, and poked and prodded me. I was expecting to cough and see the stethoscope, but he also poked at bits of me I wasn't expecting. Oh, and I had a quick eye test as well. I'd never worn glasses, and I could tell who was batting from the boundary, so I was pretty certain that my eyesight was all right.
Then it was back to school. Spring arrived, and we heard about something happening in Norway.
Then it all changed very quickly. Every day brought more news, most of it bad. Mr. Churchill took over. France was all going awfully well, and then just awfully. We were glued to the wireless and the papers.
We heard they were evacuating from Dunkirk. Lots of soldiers came back. Then Italy declared war, and France went down.
Joe came back. He was different, more grim. He'd got off the beach early, but that was all he said to us. He went out with Dad for a longer chat. When they came back they were both laughing and cheerful, but there was melancholy underneath.
Then it was all tenterhooks. We waited for an invasion. It was the main topic as we got to the end of the summer term. Well, nearly the main topic…
"I've been called up," said Peter.
"It was inevitable," I was consoling him, "Army, Navy, or Air Force?"
"None of them," he said bitterly, then turned to face me. "They're sending me down the mines!"
I must have looked confused.
"My number ends in a zero. It's Mr. Bevin's idea. One tenth of us go and become coal miners. I'm heading off to Derby next week."
"Well, at least you'll be out of the action."
"Bloody miner! Bet I'll get a miner's cough. What a waste of time!" He made his hand into a fist and hit the other hand violently.
I couldn't think what to say. "You'll be fed well…" I stammered, "and you'll be one of the few lads around. Let me know what the northern girls are like."
He smiled a bit, " as long as I don't get an accent. My Mum would kill me. Ay up now!"
We laughed at that, then became serious.
"Keep in touch. Let your parents know where you are, and we'll send you a letter."
"Absolutely. I'll see if I can send them some coal."
He looked at me. "You'll be next," he said.
He was right.
Afterword: Now I know that they don't speak like that in Derby, but this is a conversation between two teenagers from London.
The Hunter and the Hunted completed novel
A Slice of Life short story (horror)