BECOMING ALICE is the story of three ordinary people in the extraordinary decade that follows 1941. As the bombs fall around her Ruth Kelman gives birth to her daughter Alice in a Tyneside cellar. A thousand miles away, Louis Roxby, a young English soldier adjusts to the severe strictures and strange opportunities of prison camp life. Between 1941 and 1951 Alice Kelman becomes a northern grammar school girl; Ruth becomes a skilled photographer and Louis Roxby becomes, in turn, a forger, an artist, and a teacher, finally to enjoying the freedom of post-war bohemian London. Then in 1951, their paths cross as they are drawn like iron filings to a magnet to the celebratory Festival of Britain in London’s South Bank.
This novel is the first of three short novels spanning the second part of the Twentieth Century.
‘Novelist Wendy Robertson at her consummate best. Once again – as in ‘Long Journey Home’ and ‘Writing at the Maison Bleue’ -she paints on a big canvas, brilliantly welding together the broad sweep of history and the fine detail of individual experience.’
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© Wendy Robertson 2018
Alice Kelman: ‘It all starts in a cellar with me butting my way into the world to the sound of dark thunder and exploding bombs. It was a dark time but no queen was welcomed more. The only sounds I could hear before that were my mother’s heartbeat and the murmur of voices filtered through her flesh. The end comes with me clutching the hand of my granddaughter watching fireworks shooting up and reflected in the Thames to the roar of a thousand millennial voices…’
Louis Roxby: the London Spring of 1947 is the first true spring of his life. Of course, before the war he’d lived through nineteen spring-times since he’d been born. But he’d hardly noticed those spring times, except for the welcoming brightening of the day at a certain time of year and the subsequent greening of the trees in the woodland around the village where he grew up…’
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
As You Like It
We are not troubled by events but rather how we interpret them.
- Alice Emerges.
- Louis Roxby Confined
- Patrick McCarthy is in Demand
- Passing Time at Stalag Eden.
- A Job for Louis Roxby.
- Ruth Kelman Settles In
- The Welsh House Men at War.
- An Afternoon at the Pictures with Nenet.
- The Outsider.
- The Photographer
- A Hospital Visit.
- Collecting the Photos
- Mixed Infants
- The Gambler.
- The Box Brownie. .
- A London Spring.
- In the Teepee.
- Harold Frobisher.
- The Collection.
- Mary Clare.
- A Frame for a Precious Picture.
- Viveca on the Staircase
- Testing Times.
- A Kind of Career
- Empty Rooms (1)
- Empty Rooms (2) .
- Past and Present
- A Welcome Visitor.
33. An Early Start.
- A Long Journey South.
- Half -Way There.
- Family Matters.
- Ways of Escape.
- Ruth and Ways of Looking
- Through the Looking Glass.
- Double Decker,
- River Bus
- The Dance Pavilion
- A Letter from Nenet
44 An Education for Life
Chapter One: Alice Emerges.
1941: March 10. Libya. British and Australian troops besieged in Tobruk
Ruth Kelman looks down at her daughter – a swaddled bundle, wrapped tightly in greying gauze, one pink shell-like fist poking through a fold. The baby’s eyes are closed, tight as wrinkled currants; her nose, a pale button , sits between furiously rosy cheeks; her dark hair plastered to her head like coils of liquorice.
The candle – standing on an old zinc boiler – flutters as Ruth moves her head to avoid the blast of noise forcing its way through the half-window of the cellar, with it, the crashing sounds of the world splitting and riving, engines roaring and sirens singing. Now she can hear children screaming for their mothers. One voice rises above the others. ‘Ma-ammy!’ Voices, merely hollow echoes, are fractured against broken walls.
Midwife Violet Alice Baggott pedals furiously through thick veils of dust before jumping off her bicycle and parking it by the broken yard wall of the narrow house. She makes her way through the blown-in back door, down the steep cellar steps, her bulk slowing her on her way down.
She enters the narrow candle-lit space and looks down with proprietary satisfaction at her patient: young Ruth Kelman who is lying on the ruffled makeshift bed in the corner, her tiny baby bundled tight as a chrysalis in her arms.
‘We did a good job there, honey,’ Violet says, her tone warm. She holds up a plump hand. ‘I know! I know! It’s all your doing. Me, I was sitting around knitting, only any use in that crucial last half hour. You did the hardest work. The best thing of all is that you and this littl’n are alive at last in the middle of this mayhem.’ She pulls Ruth’s blanket up to the baby. ‘Some folks aren’t so lucky, pet. At least I was here even though I just about knitted through it.’
Ruth blinks, her tired eyes lighting up. ‘So you were, Mrs Baggott! This little’n would still’ve been struggling in my belly but for you. That, or buried under the stone walls of the scullery.’
Vi Baggot’s face lights up with a snag-toothed grin. Then, with a magician’s flourish, she reaches under her coat, whips out a newspaper packet and hands it to Ruth. The smell of fish and chips pervades the cellar. ‘Here, honey,’ she says. ‘Sustenance. Get that inside you. You deserve a treat.’
Ruth exchanges the swaddled baby for the newspaper parcel. She sniffs the packet. ‘Heaven. Bloody lovely, Miss Baggot. No smell like fish and chips!’ She dips her hand into the newspaper. ‘Shop still open, in the middle of all this, Miss Baggot?’ she says, crunching a crisp chip.
‘Call me Auntie Vi, love. Most people do. As for the fish and chips: there’s people that’s got to eat, honey. And thanks to that, these days there’s folk making money out there, war or no war. And them Nazzies aren’t gunna keep us from our fish and chips, are they?’
Outside, another sound joins the tumultuous cacophony: the wailing cry of a sea monster pierces the cellar.
‘There’s the All Clear.’ Vi Baggot leans across, picks up a chip and bites into it, her ragged teeth gleaming. ‘Eat up, kid. Then we have to get you upstairs and into a real bed, beside a real fire. Bloody cold down here, isn’t it? And that smell isn’t just fish and chips, kidder. We got coal-dust, muck and shit down here, as well’
Ruth speaks up, spitting out bits of fish: ‘Mrs Baggot … Auntie Vi?’
‘Yes, love?’ The midwife starts to sway from side to side, holding the baby-bundle close.
Ruth looks at her with affection. She had seen this woman for the first time the previous night when she had staggered next door to her neighbour Jack Smollett, who had shared off to get a midwife – any midwife! By the time the midwife arrived the air-raid siren was screaming its menace into the dark. By then, Jack’s family had scuttled away to the air raid shelter. The midwife had sent him after them, telling him to leave her to this ‘woman’s work’.
That was when she half-carried Ruth down to the makeshift bed in the cellar and began to lay out her professional paraphernalia in preparation for the hours to come. With Ruth settled, she took her knitting out of her nurse’s bag,
Now Ruth looks up into the sparkling black eyes of the midwife. ‘What is it you’re called, nurse? I forget.’’
‘You know that honey. Baggot. Nurse Baggot, that’s me. Or Auntie Vi. Everyone knows me.’
‘Well, I didn’t before tonight. Vi? Is that your first name?’
‘Oh, like I say, they call me Vi. Well, more properly Violet. Well, even more properly, Violet-Alice.’ She puffs out a wheezing laugh. ‘Not so much a shrinking violet if I’m to be honest. I wasn’t called after some shrinking flower. I was called after a place: Violet Banks near Bishop Auckland in South Durham. I was born there. My mother was midwife in that place. She was called Alice. So there you have it, my name, Ruth Kelman. Violet-Alice.’
By the time Ruth has finished her fish and chips the high whine of the All Clear has stopped, and the bangs and clatters have faded, leaving only the occasional shouts and calls of men, women and children’s voices against the whine of fire engines.
Ruth nods towards the bundle in Nurse Vi Baggot’s arms. ‘I’m thinking that I’ll call this one Violet Alice.’ Suddenly, tears are sitting in her eyes. ‘Oh-ooh.’
Vi Baggot is used to this flood of emotion after women gave birth. ‘Go canny, pet,’ she says. ‘You can’t decide on things so fast. Remember: it’s just this minute for you now. It’s a lifetime for this little dot here.’ She puts her hand on the baby’s head.
Ruth screws up the last of the chip paper and throws it into the opposite corner of the cluttered cellar. She swings her legs onto the floor, her bare feet squelching into the blood-soaked newspaper still lying there. ‘Did you say something about going upstairs, Miss Baggot?’
Chapter Two: Louis Roxby Confined
1942: Nazi Leader Hitler orders the Luftwaffe to attack civilian targets
The voice in Louis Roxb’s ear is pure and sweet. He closes his eyes and sees his young brother, Michael, still in short trousers then, standing before the altar; he is singing at the Whitsun Chapel Anniversary. But the voice Louis hears today is not singing a Wesleyan hymn. This is an Irish song. The singer is not his brother Michael. And this is no chapel hymn.
Take me on your wing
together we will fly.
Let me see your memory
through the teardrop in my eye.
Lift my spirit high
till I can touch your soul.
Take me on your wing
with all the love I bring.
My sweet Angel of Hope
A chorus of groans erupts from the other end of Hut Sixteen in the camp they call Stalag Eden.
‘Will you hold your crack, Paddy?’
‘Stop that caterwauling, Irish!
The gamblers sitting at one end of the long, scarred table in the centre of the hut look up from their games of cards. At the other end, the chess men put down their home-made figures. And the men lounging on their bunks look up too, from their well-thumbed books. One of them, Billy Blair, keeps his finger in his place and looks up over his glasses. ‘You’re giving me a bliddy headache, Irish.’
But the Irish lad sings on. And Louis Roxby, in the bunk beneath him, feels a rare flush of pleasure. That’s one of several things he likes about Patrick McCarthy. The lad just sings on, despite everything; despite blistered feet from the long trudge from the train; despite the freezing rollcalls at ridiculous times; despite the casual beating on work-parties for any demonstrated disrespect, Patrick – called Paddy by all the men except Louis Roxby – still sings on.
The Irishman is skinnier now than he was when they arrived, and his voice wavers now and then. But still he sings on, just as Louis himself keeps on drawing, as the chess games are perpetually renewed, as the gamblers keep playing their cards and the readers read on, no matter what goes on around them in the hut or in the wider camp.
Patrick McCarthy is quite a target for affectionate scorn in Hut Sixteen. But Louis Roxby observes that the men don’t complain when the boy sings his sentimental Irish songs at one of their concerts or when he plays the girl in one of their shows. They applaud him wildly then. But here in their hut they like their peace and quiet. They are used to it.
From their arrival in the camp, Patrick McCarthy and Louis Roxby have been mates. Patrick treasures Louis’s sketch of himself with his legs dangling from the bunk, his arms waving as he conducts himself through his song. That drawing is his treasure – safe now under his straw-filled palliasse.
Louis Roxby spends a lot of his time in the hut, sketching. The fact is that he spends all his spare time sketching. But that can only happen when he has managed to scrounge some cardboard or paper and when he isn’t out on a work party, or eating, or sleeping. He usually returns dog-tired from his long day in the forest, cutting wood. But once he’s eaten his single slice of black bread and drunk his thin soup he’s ready to draw again, right up until lights out.
But sleep is a problem. Louis is a restless sleeper. Many nights he has had to force himself to wake up and cut-short dreams which rehearse again the nightmare experience of being pulled off his motorbike and taken prisoner by a rather short German soldier in that narrow lane in bocage country outside Dunkirk. Sometimes, in the dreams he himself is the German soldier, pulling the white-faced boy of nineteen years off his bike. It’s when he realises that the short, rough stranger in grey is himself that the dream turns into a nightmare.
The night terrors make it even more important for Louis to carve out some precious time to draw, even – if he’s lucky – to paint. Bizarrely, this is not impossible. He wangles paints and colours by bartering the fags he doesn’t smoke with some of the other lads in his section who get parcels from home; sometimes he even barters cigarettes with the guards for pencils or paper.
Some of the lads have been luckier than he has with their parcels and are only happy to let him have their cardboard and paper packaging. But he has been lucky in his friends, friends like this lad who works cleaning the Admin Block and sometimes ‘comes upon’ blank sheets of paper and the inside of parcels
Louis’s greatest prizes, though, are the stout insides of Red Cross boxes containing presents from home. This is a strong cardboard that can hold heavy paint, so it’s good for painting. From time to time some lads will barter their stores of this precious stuff with Louis in return for a drawing of themselves
And then there is the problem of paint. But he sometimes manages to scrounge the real stuff – mostly hard colour blocks, not oil tubes which are banned, as they can be suspected of containing a messages or maps – from the Sunday morning art class run by Sergeant Molloy. This sergeant had been a commercial artist in civilian life and was sometimes sent real paints in his Red Cross parcels. It is Sergeant Molloy who has shown Louis how to make oil paints by grating the colours blocks and adding the oil from the Red Cross sardine cans – of course, after the precious sardines had been devoured.
It’s Molloy who got a Scottish private to show Louis how to come up with brushes made from the mane of the latrine cart-horse, and then set it into a ferrule made from one of the same sardine cans – flattened and rolled – with a handle fashioned from a spelk shaved off the side of Louis’s bunk.
Now, from time to time when Louis handles one of these new brushes, he can distinctly hear an echo of his father’s voice: ‘Tools of the trade, son. Tools of the trade. Hang onto them. A man is nothing without the tools of his trade’.
Louis’s father, now dead, had been a sign-writer, not an artist. But he likes his tools. And Louis thought that his father’s principle applied to him, here in Stalag Eden.
1942: February 15. Singapore. The great naval base and so-called impregnable fortress surrenders to the Japanese