The Escape

Each morning, Vera went home with the smell of dope on her clothes and the gritty, dry taste of sawdust in her mouth.  Her only relief was when there had been a raid during the night, and her shift had spent most of the night in the shelters.  It was November 1940, shortly after Hitler had abandoned plans of invasion in southern England and had instead changed his attention to bombing England’s industrial heart.  Coventry, where Vera lived, was a favourite target during that period so the raids were frequent.  One particularly bad night, when the sirens had gone off three times she had spent all night in the shelter, and had finally emerged to find one of the wood stores burning fiercely and the air wardens, police and even the night managers all in the melee, trying to help the firemen put it out.  That morning it was the acrid taste of wood smoke rather than sawdust that made her mouth dry, and when she got home, she felt just as sick as she always did.  Sawdust or smoke, it did not seem to make any difference.

‘I hate this job. I hate it all.  I’m never going back, ever!’ she told her mother, as she walked into the kitchen. Her mother gave her a hug and sat her down with a mug of sweet tea.  The sugar was on the ration book, but her mother always gave Vera sweet tea.

‘Everyone has to pitch in now, love,’ her mother said.

‘I know, but I feel like I’m in prison – I’ve got sawdust in my hair and the dope makes me feel sick.  The men won’t let girls work in the woodwork shop, so we’re just stuck in the fabric shop, covering the wings.  It’s so hot in there I often feel dizzy but if I sneak outside its freezing in the middle of the night.’

‘Well, best go to bed now.  You’ll feel better after you have had a good sleep.  Everything seems better when your fresh,’ said her mother.

Vera sighed.

‘You said that last week too.’

She gave her mother another hug and then went upstairs.

As she slept Vera dreamt of a big field, full of lush grass.  Waves of green and pale yellow ran across the grass as a soft wind rippled across the field under a bright summer.   In one corner of the field,  a strong, white horse, fat on summer hay, stood under the spreading shade of an oak tree.  In her dream Vera wanted to go up to the horse and pat its neck and rub its back, but the horse’s stillness and dignity somehow held her back.  Suddenly the horse looked up and gently trotted to the bottom of the field.  She saw a dim distant figure appear at the gate to the field.  The figure emptied some oats from a bucket onto the ground.  As the horse put its his head down to eat the figure neatly slipped a halter around the horse’s neck and gently combed the mud out of the horse’s mane while it finished the oats.  As the figure led the horse away, Vera heard her name being called.  She wanted to run down the field too, towards whomever was calling her.

‘Vera. Vera!’ she heard.  It was her mother’s voice.

‘Vera, your father’s home – come on down, I’ve some cake for tea as a treat.’

The dream had faded.  Her mouth felt dry and she needed another cup of sweet tea to wash away her sense of loss.

That night, Vera walked through the factory gate, with her head down as usual, following the white line that had been painted on the road to guide people in the blackout.  Just as she reached the pile of plywood offcuts outside the woodwork shop, she saw a couple of pinpoints of light in the middle of the road before her.

'Rat!,’ she thought, more in annoyance than revulsion, and kicked a stone towards it.  The rat was unmoved, so Vera picked up a baton from the wood pile and advanced on the creature.  As she got closer the points of light simply vanished.

‘Strange,’ she thought, and advanced until, under the dim streetlight, she saw that instead of a rat, the creature was a tiny, round ball of spines.  She had never seen a hedgehog before, but this surely must be a baby.

‘What are you doing here, little thing?  You’ll get run over if you’re not careful,’ she said, though she was not sure if she was speaking to herself or to the hedgehog.

Not sure what to do, she poked the hedgehog gently with the stick.  The little ball wriggled a little and seemed to wrap itself up even tighter.  Vera threw the stick back onto the wood pile and then, taking a deep breath, she bent down and picked up the little ball.  Surprised that the spines did not pierce her gloves, she thought ‘Maybe babies don’t have sharp spines.’  She walked the few steps back to the wood pile and put the hedgehog down.  The creature remained motionless.  Realising she would be late for her shift she hurriedly selected some of the offcuts from the pile and built a little shelter around the ball.  As an afterthought, she left a little tunnel so that the creature could get out.

‘Yes, run away little hedgehog – that is what I would do if I were you. Get as far away from this factory as you can – there is no food for you here,’ she said.

As she turned and walked up the road to join her shift in the doping building, she added under her breath, ‘and nothing much here for me too.’

When her shift was over, Vera came back to the wood pile to see if the hedgehog was still there.  In the morning light, she could not initially see the little enclosure she had made, as the night’s work had resulted in a whole new layer of plywood fragments being added to the pile.  Eventually though, after moving a dozen pieces aside she got down to the little space she had made.  To her surprise the little hedgehog was still there.  It had collected various wood shavings from the detritus under the wood pile and built a neat nest.  It was apparently sleeping, this time only curled up in loose ball.  As she looked down, she saw the animal’s eye open and look back up at her.  They both looked at each other for a moment in complete stillness and then suddenly the hedgehog wriggled and rolled up into a tight ball.

It was only after Vera had pulled off her woolly hat and gently scooped the hedgehog up in it, that Vera wondered what her mother would think when she arrived home.  It was already hard enough to feed the existing mouths at home.  And what did a hedgehog eat anyway?  But there was nothing else for it, she told herself.  She was sure the hedgehog would not survive long in amongst the concrete yards and brick buildings of the industrial estate.

When Vera got home, she ran up the stairs to her bedroom.  She pulled out the drawer at the bottom her wardrobe and took out the old shoebox she kept her special things in and tipped the contents out onto the bed.  Amongst the hairbands and beads from Woolworths there was a silver brooch and bangle wrapped in tissue paper. She unwrapped these carefully and put the tissue paper back in the shoebox and then gently tipped the hedgehog out of her hat and onto its new nest.  The creature was resolutely still rolled up, so Vera pushed the shoebox back under her bed.  The beads and jewellery were still on her bed, so she wrapped them up in a couple of handkerchiefs and put them back in the wardrobe drawer.  Then she went to the bathroom and washed her hands ready to eat.

Her father and mother were already eating when she entered the kitchen.

‘Hello, love,’ her mother said, pouring out a cup of tea.  ‘I didn’t hear you come in.  You’re a bit late – long shift was it?’

‘They all seem long to me,’ Vera replied, and picked up a slice of toast and spread a thin layer of margarine on it.  Between mouthfuls, she slipped the hot sweet tea,  that was the best part of the meal.  Still thinking of the hedgehog, she blurted out,

‘Do you know what hedgehogs eat?’

‘That’s an odd question – what on earth made you ask that?’ her mother replied.

Vera said, ‘I don’t know, I was just wondering if they eat toast.’

‘That seems rather unlikely,’ her father said.

‘I imagine they eat what they can find out in nature.  Worms and things, I wouldn’t be surprised.  I expect they eat vegetables too if they can’t find anything else.  Just like the rest of us.’

With this pronouncement, he took an apple from the bowl on the table and cut it into three.  Her mother cut a corresponding small portion of the cheese ration for each of them and they finished their meal in silence.  Vera yawned and said,

‘I’m really tired, I think I’ll go to bed now – I’ll take the apple and cheese and have it later.’

‘All right, love,’ said her mother, ‘I’ll bring you up a cup of tea when you’ve had a good rest.’

Vera took her small plate of apple and cheese upstairs and went into her bedroom.  She opened the wardrobe drawer as quietly and slowly as she could and smiled when she saw that the warmth of the little nest she had made had stirred the hedgehog into life.  The animal was looking up at her and sniffing the air.  She took the pieces of apple and cheese and, trying not to frighten the creature, she put them at the far end of the shoebox.

‘I will call you Henry,’ she said.  Henry blinked back but did not move.

‘Ah, I suppose you are thirsty then,’ she said.  She looked around for a suitable container from which the hedgehog could drink.  The plate was the only thing that was shallow enough for the hedgehog to drink from, so she brought that back from the bathroom with a little water in it and put that in the shoebox too.

‘There you are Henry – a meal fit for a prince!’

Vera got into her night dress and lay down on the bed.  In a moment she was asleep.  She dreamt of the horse in the field again, only this time she was riding the horse through the meadow.  The tall grass,  bronzed by days of deep blue skies, flowed around the horse’s path and she felt the heat of the summer sun soaking into her skin.  She wanted the moment to last forever.  As she rode on, she heard her name being called in the distance.

‘Vera. Vera!’

The voice was getting louder each time.

‘Vera! Vera!’

Suddenly, she was back in her room, and so was the voice. It was her father calling from downstairs.

‘Vera! Come down here this instant!’

She sat up and rubbed her face.  Looking across the room she could see that she had left the wardrobe drawer open.  The shoebox was empty.  The apple and cheese were gone, and so was Henry!

She grabbed her dressing gown and threw it over her nightdress and started down the stairs.  She could see her mother and father were both in the hallway.  A broken cup and saucer were on the floor at the bottom of the stairs, surrounded by a small pool of tea.  Henry was lapping up the tea with apparent gusto.

‘Vera!  What do you know about this animal in the hallway?  Did you bring it into the house?,’ her father asked.

‘Oh Dad, I’m sorry,’ she said.  ‘I found him at the factory - he was so small and so alone I just had to do something.  There wasn’t anything for him to eat and I couldn’t bear the thought of him getting bombed.  So I brought him home.  I’ve called him Henry.  Can’t we keep him?’

‘No, certainly not,’ her father said.  ‘A house is not a place for a hedgehog.’

Her father paused and then said, ‘But I think have a better plan. In fact, I have two plans – one for Henry and one for you.’

-----

That night father and daughter set off for the factory together.  The moon was out and illuminated their progress.  Vera had put Henry in her woollen hat again and held him close.  About halfway to the factory, they turned off down a little alleyway that ran down the side of line of houses.  Emerging from behind the houses they could just see a patch of green and brown in front of them.

‘Here we are,’ said her father.

‘My allotment strip is third on the right.  If we put Henry down by the compost heap, I think he’ll find a nice home – he’ll probably hibernate there or under the hedge.  We’ll leave him some more apple and cheese and the scraps from last Sunday’s mutton.  That should give him a good start.’

Vera’s father picked up an armful of dead leaves from the compost heap and threw them under the hedge at the side of the allotment.  It only took Vera a moment to hollow out a hedgehog shaped hole in the leaves and roll Henry out of her hat and into the leaves.  She placed the scraps of food around him and then her father swept a covering of dried leaves over the little nest.

‘Goodbye, little Henry,’ she said, though it only came out just as a whisper.

They walked back in silence to the main road and turned once more towards the factory.  After a short while they came to a gap in the houses where some large billboards had been erected.  Vera’s father pointed at the last one in the line, saying,

‘Well, I said I had a plan for Henry and a plan for you too.’

Vera looked up at the poster.  It showed a strong, white horse hitched to a plough, with a tall girl in dungarees guiding the horse’s reins. It was the horse Vera had dreamt of in the nights before.  At the bottom of the poster, a caption said in large letters:

‘Join the Women’s Land Army.’

‘No more factory then, Dad,’ said Vera as she hugged him.