The unabated heavy showers dampened our sombre mood. We all felt beaten by what life’s surprises perpetually threw at us. Deflated, my mother held the baggage in one hand and propped as many as she possibly could underneath her arm. In her other hand, she held Julie tight to her chest and determined, she endeavoured and elegantly unfurled her umbrella to protect us all. With my mother struggling, Peter and I were able to keep up to her speed. “Come on Peter, hold on tight,” I said as we scraped the soles of our feet on the wet ground and at the time when the will took us, we splashed into oncoming puddles.
As our sodden clothes dripped, we slowly followed by Peter gripping my hand as we marched towards the train station. Drenched as we all were, was Peter’s beautiful, soft brown and squidgy teddy bear. Although Peter held the bear tightly, his drenched bear seemed despondent as he lagged heavily behind. Eventually, Peter clutched his teddy bear’s body tight under his arm, leaving his big brown eyes and stitched nose dripping onto Peter’s chest as if he was sobbing its heart out. Even his dangling jointed arms seemed to portray the bear pleading for help. Even though we felt lost and destitute and our hearts panged, none of us moaned.
Peter and I attempted to stay close to our mother and under the umbrella’s protection despite the fact that her task seemed nigh on impossible. My wet, slippery grip kept losing Peter’s hand and our legs ached as we continuously attempted to catch up with our mother. Finally, we caught sight of the train station and desperate to reach the dry shelter, we began trotting towards it. My eyes beamed at the sight. “Peter, the trains are there,” I said. I began teasing my brother to allow himself to catch up with me. He didn’t neat tremendous encouragement for when he too saw the train station, he began to trot faster and his eyes lit to which he automatically smiled. As we approached the station, my mother reassured us that we would be okay and in believing her, I brushed my father’s absence to the back of our minds, just as we had been brought up too.
“You are magic,” I said, giggling. At that moment, the blustering Easterly winds gushed her umbrella uncontrollably. Despite the fact that my father’s arrest had sent us hurling down a spiral helix of uncertainty and trepidation, my mother had no intentions of giving up. Although for a while she stood debating on whether to return to England; to her home town; to our grandparents.
Thankfully the winds of the tide were about to change for us all. “Pepe is a cold, mummy,” Peter informed her as he held onto one of the bear’s jointed arms. Empathetically, my mother gazed down to him and smiled.
“Come on, let us get warmed up, eh,” she said. She had decided she wanted to catch a train to return to England. “How about we all go to granddad’s place in England, eh.” The journey was all planned. She had one massive suitcase and two little ones. She had tried to keep the packing down to a minimum in order to cope with them and us children. Suddenly, the cases had become our temporary seating arrangement, as we waited for our train to arrive. we felt excited; we couldn’t remember what our grandparents looked like but the sound of homemade sponge cake sounded inviting.
Peter hugged tightly onto Pepe. “I love you, Pepe,” Peter whispered. I held a little bag of my own, shivering with cold and my mother was nursing Julie. And still, she perilously held unto the umbrella attempting to cover us all.
Then, out of nowhere, there seemed to be one angry man, shoulders humped forward and with big heavy strides. “Mummy, that man is coming our way,” I said fearing the worst.
“Gem, Peter, shuffle nearer to me, as much as you possibly can,” she said worriedly.
On seeing the gentlemen approaching, we witnessed that he was desperately picking up his speed. He bent down to face my mother, holding onto his knees. “There is a dry shelter inside the train station,” he said.
“But it was locked when I tried to open the door,” my mother replied as she shivered with cold.
“my apologies. I had forgotten to unlock it. Come on, these nippers need to dry up,” he said smiling at us.
She nodded in approval. “Oh, what if we miss the train?” she asked.
“You will know, I can assure you of that,” he gasped attempting to reassure her. We all looked up at our mother, waiting for her to make her mind up but alas, she decided to stay in sight of the eventual oncoming train.
“Well! Let me know if you change your mind lady,” he said all despondent as he stomped away.
We waited for a while longer. I couldn’t understand as to why we couldn’t wait inside but I figured she panicked about missing our train. Never the less, the train’s arrival seemed to take forever. “Mummy, where is the train?” I asked. I was frozen as my chin dripped from the droplets of rain.
“I don’t know, Gem, perhaps it is late,” my mother replied staring at the huge round clock dangling from the station platform.
Again, the gentleman approached us. “I am so sorry to inform you but the train has been delayed. There were problems on the tracks further up East,” he breathlessly expressed. At this, the gentleman urged her to reconsider sheltering. Again, Peter and I gazed at her for her response.
“Look, lady, these young ones are going to have hypothermia if you don’t get them into a warm place.” He kept on insisting as he pointed in the direction of the waiting room.
Reluctantly, my mother accepted. The conductor helped my mother cart the suitcases into the area. “Mummy, there’s a lit fire,” I said running to it to desperately warm up and dry up. The man disappeared for five minutes but returned clutching onto a little brown, square leather bag. He smiled and knelt towards Peter and me. After a few seconds, he opened his bag and offered each one of us, a sandwich. We gratefully accepted; we were starving.
“Wow, thank you,” I said and we immediately tucked in. Due to being so hungry, the sandwich was barely chewed before we were swallowing each bite. Then, he proceeded to remove his flask from his bag. Google-eyed, we observed him as he served a steamy hot drink into a small plastic cup and passed it to each one of us. Each one of us held the cup tight, not just because we were dying of thirst but also because it felt warm. We sipped the hot coffee slowly, ensuring not to burn our lips.
“What is it?” asked Peter shocked at the taste.
“It is coffee my little one,” the train conductor said, shuffling Peter’s hair.
Once he had tended to our hunger pangs and our thirst, he returned to tend to his business. After around an hour, my mother prepared to transfer back to the platform, ready for the oncoming train. Once again, the conductor came rushing along to her rescue. As she was about to board the train, a voice from beyond the platform called my mother’s name out. “Sandra Dupont,” the unrecognisable voice shouted. She hadn’t heard the calls and she continued embarking us onto the train but the conductor felt compelled to run off to the direction of the caller.
He returned running towards us with another uniformed man. However, my mother panicked at missing her train and so, ignored his waves and his shouting for her. As both men approached her, they stopped her from trying to board the train. After a moment of panic as to their intentions, she recognised the other man’s uniform to be that of a hired driver. “I am the driver of the Baroness, she has sent me to collect you and the children,” he said attempting to regain composure.
The driver and the conductor stood breathless, staring at my mother, waiting for some kind of response. “Why would a Baroness send a driver to fetch me?” she asked puzzled as we waited on the carriage doorway gazing at her.
The driver spent his time, persuading her to accompany him and he promised her that in due course, all would be revealed. As they were discussing all this, Peter and I were excitedly running around the aisles finding appropriate seats. “I’m having this one,” I shouted out to Peter and Peter ran wild, attempting to also choose one.
The conductor urged my mother to quickly make her mind up as the train had already been delayed. My mother pondered for a minute and then she decided to follow the driver. “Gem, Peter, come on we need to get off. Now,” she shouted. The conductor and the driver helped us all to disembark the train and we were escorted onto the car park, where we were all greeted by a parked up long white limousine. We were speechless.
On reaching this massive long car, the driver opened one of the back doors. Through this door, a white-haired lady popped her head down, smiling. “Are you Sandra Dupont, Pierre’s wife?” she politely asked. “Let me introduce myself,” she began saying. This lady went on and introduced herself as ‘Baroness Del Marmol’.
As my mother listened to her, she took a deep breath in relief. Still holding up the umbrella, we were all invited to board the car. My mother held the umbrella until we had all boarded into the car. “Wow mummy, this car is big,” I said giggling with Peter as we caressed the seat’s leather upholstery.
My mother had heard of her reputation but she was still surprised as to why this lady would be trying to pick us up. She knew the Barron and the Baroness of ‘Château De Forêt’ were wealthy but she could not understand why she would associate with the downs and outs such as ourselves. “I don’t understand as to how you knew we were here,” my mother said. The Baroness held my mother’s free hand and smiled.
On seeing my tearful mother, the lady patted her hand. “Please, Mary Poppins, get in and let me explain,” she said smiling. The very mention of Mary Poppins made us all giggle. My mother folded her umbrella and the driver quickly and gently poached it from her hand. My mother smiled and lowered her head, shying away from her comments. Without further prompting my mother comfortably sat. “My young lady you must stop being scared, I am here to help you and your young children,” The Baroness said softly.
“Children, stop being rude and sit still,” my mother scolded. Attempting to make a good impression was fruitless with Peter and me as we couldn’t stop fidgeting from one seat to another, we were excited. As we played amongst ourselves, the Baroness began explaining who she was.
“I am a custodian mentor for prisoners, ensuring them a chance to succeed in life on their release but most importantly to ensure their families’ needs are also being met,” she said with a gentle smile. This lady had no airs and graces, she resembled any other normal helpful person. “I have a farmhouse on the grounds, which you and the children could reside in during Piere’s incarceration.”
My mother began to cry. She wasn’t crying out of desperation but out of gratefulness. On seeing her tears, Peter and I stopped playing and gazed in horror, we wondered as to why she was crying. “I also am providing you with a suitable training position as a maid,” she informed my mother.
“Thank you,” said my mother unable to stop shaking the Baroness’ hand. My mother was relieved. “I feel honoured to be trained in your personal domestic service, my Lady.” My mother couldn’t stop shaking her hand in gratitude. Then something worried my mother, her face went white. Then she looked at me. “What about the schooling?” On hearing her words, I began to be puzzled. I didn’t know what school was and wondered if it meant being sent away to one of those homes for little children. Even Peter panicked and immediately gazed at me wondering as to what it all meant.
“We will sort something out for them,” the Baroness said smiling at both Peter and me. Her answer upset me and I didn’t know if I liked the Baroness anymore.
We were then driven to the château in Trooz and all the way, I kept thinking of having to go away into a home again. Eventually, we drove onto the drive of the chateau crunching the gravel. We were all startled at the sight before us. We parked within its courtyard. “Wow mummy,” I muttered in awe and at that moment I had forgotten the previous comments. We stepped out, gazing in reverence at her grand place. Excited, Peter and I ran straight to the Château’s main doors, pressed our outstretched hands and squashed our nose onto the multicoloured window panes. For a fleeting moment, I wondered if this was a care home. Then we were dragged and diverted to our left, where we gazing through a large oval window which overlooked onto a gracefully decorated room, which overlooked onto the grounds beyond.
We stood drooling in the presence of French antiques, specifically selected for the estate. We were hypnotised by the room’s grandeur. We were so surprised by it all, again we squashed our noses and spread our hands onto the pane. Still drooling, we blew our hot breath onto it. “Look Peter they have little chairs for children to sit on,” I bellowed as I pointed to two little red velour footstools.
“Children come on, this way,” my mother shouted. Yet! No matter how much our mother insisted on us coming towards her, we couldn’t move. “Come away from the window,” my mother said just as we had eyed the massive twirling thick wooden staircase.
The Baroness didn’t take no for an answer and she wasn’t going to wait for us both to listen either. She instantly fetched us. Firmly but gently she grabbed our hands, towing us towards our next destination. “Come on children,” she said smiling at us both. We looked at her in amazement as she gently pulled us along and across the yard. There, across the Château itself, was a run down, 17th Century farmhouse. Apparently, she explained that it had been renovated after the farmhouses and the Château had been set on fire by the Germans as they left after the second world war. Peter and I gasped at her devastating news for we didn’t understand when the second world war had been. As we entered through the entrance, we gazed at the massive wooden, arched door, which led you up to a three-foot-wide, wooden spiral staircase.
We were amazed, we had never seen the likes, we couldn’t stop staring. “Is this our new home?” I asked staring at every nook and cranny of our new place.
“Yes, down here, was where the horse and carriages once parked,” she said proudly. “Come on Peter I’ll pick you up for these steep stairs.” She carefully stepped up as she held onto my hand. “Come on Gemma, keep up dear.”
At the top of the stairs, there were the living quarters. “Yeah,” I squealed. Peter was lowered to stand and run off to play to which I followed. He flung his arms horizontally and he roamed in and out of each room as if he was a plane. We were excited. We hadn’t felt as free as we did on that special day of finding our new home, when only hours prior, we thought we had been abandoned, wet and homeless. “Oh, wow, there is a big room with a big hole.”
“Ah, that is the hayloft. That is where we use to store of hay,” the Baroness said. My mother and the Baroness followed us in. “Hey, Peter, come away from the opening.” But before he did, we felt compelled to look. We noticed the big drop and stepped back, but we saw a farm. We felt exhilarated at the sight of the drop and the farm. “You could hurt yourselves, so come on out of here. Now.” We didn’t argue and followed them back through to the main living quarters. As I ran out, I felt my adrenaline begging me to return there on future dates, I am sure my brother did too as he smiled glancing back at me.
“Mummy, what is that?” I asked pointing in the direction of the farm. Although Peter and I waited for an answer, the Baroness and my mother walked away not replying. Peter and I were upset for we were eager to know, but they were too busy discussing future plans. Never the less, I soon found my answer.
The wet and cold February of 1972 was soon followed March harsh winter snow. It was freezing but being young, I ignored the potential hazard. Waiting for the school bus to arrive in the yard, Peter and I began to play snowballs. It was fun at first, but my fingers soon froze. The shock of it made Peter and me cry as we waited. Celia, the main cook and the head of the housemaid, came running out of the Château. “My, my, what on earth are you two up too?” she asked. We couldn’t answer our hands were so cold. “Ah, oh dear, come on you two let me bring you in, your mum is already working and the school bus is not coming due to the bad weather.”
We followed her into a big massive kitchen and their patio door leading onto the back were wide open. Peter ran over to mum for a cuddle, but I couldn’t move for my sight were full of lambs being brought in and wiped dry. “What is it?” I asked.
“They are lambs, my dear little Gem, would you like to help?” Celia asked bending down and holding my shoulders. I nodded and she stood holding out her hand for me to hold hers. I smiled and reached out for her hand. I was shaking but not out of fear but out of excitement. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. They were so little and frail. “We start by fetching them in and then when they are in the kitchen, we dry them, to warm them up. Then, we give them a bottle but I will show you that later.”
We walked out and faced the chill. Slowly she walked behind the lambs and began to guide it in. “Go on you try it Gem.” I walked behind a black lamb and with both my horizontally stretched out, I began to shoo the lamb in. the lamb was so weak, it didn’t hesitate and eventually wobbled into the kitchen. I picked a towel up and began to rub him like Celia was. The lamb laid to the floor. “Here, give him his bottle and as you give him his bottle, gently stroke him. That will keep him warm.” I eagerly gave him his bottle but he seemed lethargic and unresponsive.
I rubbed him but still, there was nothing happening and then I witnessed his chest had stopped pulsating. “Celia,” I shouted. She gazed at him for a second and stopped feeding her lamb. She soon walked over to me, knelt and felt for his pulse, but there was none to be found. “What is wrong with him, Celia?”
“He is dead, Gem. He has gone to heaven,” she explained. She saw my distress and soon stopped my melancholy. “Could you manage another lamb, Gem?” I nodded and stood. “Good girl, go on, the same thing, okay.” I wanted to cry but her urges for me to fetch another lamb led me to do just that. I soon forgot about him and got on with the task in hand. The day was consumed with the task in hand and we all joined in. I loved it; I was helping little baby animals.
A few days later, the weather had perked up and the sun began melting the snow, but it didn’t warm it much, just enough to enjoy the end of the winter. Surprisingly we received a visit from the Baroness. We were surprised for we seldom saw her and messages were usually brought by Celia. “Sandra, can we speak, it is about Gemma,” the Baroness asked.
“Yes, of course. Has she done something wrong?” my mother asked worriedly. On hearing my name, I ran along to both of them.
“Hello,” I shouted happily. The Baroness smiled but my mother stood to wait anxiously for a reply.
“Well Gemma did very well the other day, and I thought that perhaps she would love to help at the farm, what do you think?” the Baroness explained and asked.
“Yeah,” I replied jumping up and down.
“Calm down Gemma,” my mother said bluntly.
“No worries, she is excited,” the Baroness replied smiling at me.
My first task was to watch how the cows being fed before going to school. There was so much stuff going into some milk. The bags were too heavy for me to handle and stirring was even harder, but I loved it. I felt out of this world. Whilst they fed, we ensured every cow were content and we cleaned up. Once the cleaning was finished, they began teaching me how to milk a cow.
“Here Gem, let me hold your hands to teach you,” the farmer’s wife uttered. I allowed her to grab my hands. We reached for the back teat and a front teat. Then we began milking by gently clamping each teat between our thumb and our first finger so that the teat filled our palm. Then we squeezed down. “For more milk, you may need to gently bump against the udder. Like this.” She suddenly but gently elbowed the udder. I giggled but took great care to notice how she did not hurt the udder.
“Can I have a go by myself?” I asked eagerly. Surprisingly, she did let me have my turn in attempting to milk. I loved it; it was hard work but I felt alive. As the days went on, we both sat enjoying our task.
“Keep practising you are doing really well, but don’t forget. When you press down on the teat, hold your grip on the bottom of the teat so that the milk doesn’t flow back up into the udder,” She said watching me. “Well done, now I know I said gentle but you also need to bet firm.” My wrists ached but I was amazing. The spoiler was the hooting sound of the school bus.
I stood and bid my farewells. “Gemma what is up?”, the farmer’s wife asked. I shook my head and walked away. I couldn’t tell her of my being bullied at school. Anyway, as I walked, I wondered if Patricia, who was my new school friend, would be at school to protect me from those horrible bullies. The school bus kept hooting and my mother began shouting me. I didn’t hurry, instead, I scraped the soles of my feet as I traipsed under the archway back to the yard where I was greeted by them all.
“Come on Gemma, you will make everyone late. I love you lots. See you tonight,” my mother said, kissing me goodbye.