They said it was a holiday; something to look forward to. Holiday to me meant time off school, playing outside, reading, drawing and making stuff. I wasn’t sure why I couldn’t do that at home, or why this holiday was in school term-time. It sounded like an unusual holiday. Maybe that was a good thing.
I packed my brown suitcase myself; wiped the dust off the lid, fumbled with complicated sliding locks and cranking hinges. It smelt of damp and mothballs and age. The lining looked like brown silk, but it was probably rayon or polyester or something. I filled it with blues and yellows – my favourite colours aged 9 – and marvelled at empty drawers, contents now neatly folded for ‘going away’.
Aunty Eileen gave me ‘Pretty Peach’ to take with me – perfume in a proper glass bottle, with a plastic peach for a lid – that made me feel grown up and special. I was also now the proud possessor of a toiletry bag and a grey plastic holder for my toothbrush. I squidged Brutus the bear on top of the case contents and shoved books down the sides and in the piece of material inside the lid. The expanding hinges were a bonus, but I still had to sit on the case to get it to close.
Driving to Kent in the Mini seemed to take forever. Houses, roads, trees and cars flashing by at speed, dad quiet as a mouse. I couldn’t remember going to Sittingbourne before and could barely remember Uncle Perce’ and Auntie Marce’. He was a tall, bony man with black rings around sunken eyes, and a prominent Adam’s apple, and she was short and plump and smiley with big hair and a high-pitched shaky voice. I didn’t cry when my dad left me because I was ‘away on holiday’, and you didn’t cry when you went on holiday. Even I knew that.
They let me settle in my room – their daughter Sharon’s old room it must have been – complete with Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and Emerson Lake and Palmer posters. I unpacked my ‘Secret Garden’ ,‘Charlotte’s Web’ and ‘A Little Princess’ and stacked them on the window sill, next to some books by Judy Blume; I could read those during my holiday, they were new to me, and I’d read all my books before.
I put my clothes in the short cupboard with the two drawers underneath, but there was nowhere to hang my dresses, so I left them in my suitcase. I took my toiletry bag to the bathroom and placed my ‘Pretty Peach’ on the window ledge and my toiletry bag on the washing basket.
Marce’s quavery voice was calling from downstairs.
‘Cooey love. D’you want a cuppa?’
I pulled my fluffy pink slippers from under the bed and put them on, checking they were on the right feet, and trotted downstairs. Aunty and Uncle were both sitting in the kitchen and I must have taken them by surprise as they jumped and stopped talking.
‘There you are. Sit down there and have a drink and tell us all about what you’ve been up to.’
The tea was weak and milky with sugar in it. I tried not to make a face. Uncle Perce – which is short for Percy, which is short for Percival, so dad said – offered me a biscuit, but didn’t say anything. They were squashed fly biscuits, my favourite. I dunked it into the sweet steamy liquid and glanced up quickly to see if they would tell me off. Nothing: No exchanged looks or hard stares, and certainly no comments. I dunked again and started to relax. Maybe this would be fun after all.
I told them about school, and ballet and Guides. I made up stuff about friends and outings. They didn’t mention my sister or my mum, which was a bit odd, but I didn’t say anything about them either, so maybe they didn’t like to ask. They wanted to know if I liked animals and I reeled off all the creatures I’d brought home, and told them how I missed my dog, Gus. They did the ‘smiling-at-each-other’ thing again and then let their dog, Stan, in. Stan had been sitting outside good as gold, and now he bounded in on his little legs and smiled at me, showing me his white teeth and loppy pink tongue. I liked his shaggy coat, and sat on the floor so I could pet him. He was so much shorter than my Labrador. Marce and Perce smiled at each other, and smiled at me. They told me he was a pedigree Cairn terrier, but he looked like a small shaggy version of Dougal from the Magic Roundabout to me. They didn’t say a lot, which was a good thing in my opinion. May be they’d forgotten how to talk about stuff since Sharon had left home for teacher training college. Maybe dad had brought me here to comfort them because they were a bit sad.
It turned out Stan wasn’t the only animal. They lived on a smallholding, which was like a mini-farm. They had sheep, cows, goats, ducks, pigs and a cat who lived outside. I thought that was funny seeing as Gus lived outside and my cat Sammy lived inside, but maybe things were a bit different in Kent. I was keen to explore and Uncle Perce said he’d give me ‘the tour’. They gave me bright yellow Wellingtons to put on which were Sharon’s as they were too big for me, but Aunty Marce – which dad said is short for Marcia – said it would be OK. We went out the back door and down a short path into a yard full of mud, which squelched underfoot and was quite deep. I was thinking it was just as well for the wellies when my right foot felt something cold and wet and slimy. Yuk! The welly was stuck in the mud and my foot had come out of it and landed in the brown gunge.
‘Uncle Perce. Uncle Perce. Can you hang on a minute?’
He was strides ahead, but came back to see what I was fussing about. I was expecting him to tell me off, but he put his head back and laughed, and I laughed as well, and then he scooped me up and carried me indoors.
‘Marcie, run a bath will you. This one here’s had a bit of trouble with the yard.’
‘Oh, Jennie, are you alright my dear?’ She asked.
‘Well, my white socks are dirty, but I’m OK otherwise.’
‘Ah, never mind that love, we’ll soon get those dried out and in the machine.’
I wondered what the machine would do to my socks, but didn’t like to ask. There were lots of strange things in Kent it seemed.
Uncle Perce was stronger than he looked and carried me upstairs and all the way to the bathroom without dropping me or getting out of breath. Aunty Marce poured ‘Matey’ under the running tap and soon I was splashing in a bath of bubbles all to myself. This was turning out to be a good holiday after all.
Next day I met the array of animals and Aunty Marce had bought me my own wellies to wear, red ones with a white sole, although they didn’t stay white for long. No one seemed to mind when I got muddy or dirty. The washing machine washed my clothes and there was always a hot bubble bath with soft white towels to dry with afterwards.
I loved the chores they gave me, which didn’t seem like chores at all. Feeding animals was much better than cooking and cleaning and washing up, and I didn’t even mind the mucking out bit, where you clean the pooh and straw and stuff out of the sheds and make sure the animals have fresh bedding.
Marce and Perce didn’t have a television so in the evening we played games and cards and read books. They taught me Backgammon and tried to teach me Chess, but I told them how dad had given up because I wasn’t any good and that my little sister was a better player than me.
They often exchanged looks with each other which seemed sad, especially when they thought I wasn’t looking, and I thought they must be missing their daughter. I was missing mum by then, so I knew how they were feeling. None of us spoke about missing our families. We were doing that thing that dad called ‘stiff upper lip’ which meant you didn’t let on how upset you were about stuff. I was good at ‘stiff upper lip’, it was a bit like acting.
My holiday had lasted about a month by then and I was worried about missing too much school, but I didn’t want to upset Aunty Marce and Uncle Perce. I was loving my holiday despite my original reservations, it’s just that it wasn’t the same as home, and I wanted to know how dad and Gus were, and I was missing them – not as much as I was missing mum – it felt strange being away for so long. I decided that I would talk to them over breakfast the next morning. As it turned out, I didn’t have to.
I was in the bedroom getting a book to read for after tea, or dinner as my aunt and uncle called it, when there was a really loud bang and the sound of glass shattering. I put my hands over my head and flung myself to the ground. Marce and Perce were in the room in no time, hugging me, and cooing, and making sure I was OK. I didn’t realise I was crying until aunty Marce gave me a tissue. She kept telling me it would be OK, over and over. Uncle Perce had gone off to see what had happened and came back in with the top of my Pretty Peach bottle. I didn’t understand why he had the lid in his hand.
‘Looks like the bottle exploded, Jennie love. It may be got too hot on the window ledge. Are you OK?’
I knew I was supposed to still be doing ‘stiff upper lip’ still, but all I could think about was back to the noise of the explosion and the screaming and the glass and the horrible smell, and people running from the kitchen crying, and Colonel Geoffrey dragging me away whilst I screamed and screamed for Mum and Lydia.
I looked at Marcia through teary eyes.
‘ It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t want them to go away really. I only said to go away because I didn’t want to be in the kitchen with all those people. I wanted to be on my own and….
Marcia hugged me as I sobbed.
‘It’s OK, Jennie. It’ll be OK.’
‘But it isn’t OK!’ I spat.
‘I know mum and Lydia have gone away forever. I know they’re not coming back. I’m nine. I know what dead is. .’
And I stormed out into the mud in my pink fluffy slippers with Stan following behind, unable to get the noise and the smell out of my mind, and missing my mum and my sister like mad.
I was away ‘on holiday’ for 2 more weeks and then dad came to get me with Gus, and I was sad to leave Marcia and Percy (they told me I didn’t have to call them aunt and uncle anymore if I didn’t want to).
When we got home mum and Lydia’s stuff had all gone, which made me even sadder. I could see dad was teary too so I said he didn’t need to do ‘stiff upper lip’ if he didn’t want to, and we cried while we had our tea, and then I told him about my holiday to cheer him up.