A Short Story - Knaves & Villains

It’s time for a spot of holiday reading, with our new short story.

Get comfortable, pour yourself a glass of wine (see below for a delicious suggestion from Addison Wines).

KNAVES & VILLAINS by N. Catton

Ronnie was lying on his bed, minutely inspecting his “England Expects” pack of cards. He had carefully sorted the individual cards into groups, according to their pictures, and decided that after the Light Cruiser, depicted battling through rough seas, he liked the Seaplane, and after that, the Submarine. But the Light Cruiser, and here it was the “Ajax”, was his favourite. This was because his father was a Petty Officer aboard that very ship, at this moment somewhere in the Med. Ronnie stared closely at the portholes, with a mixture of anxiety and pride, and wondered whether his father was looking out of one now. His daydreaming was interrupted by someone calling his name. He reluctantly placed the card on top of the others, pride of pack, and stuffed them in his pocket.

Ronnie stealthily crept downstairs, scoping the front passage as he went. These days there were a whole lot of busybodies, such as his headmistress, Mrs Parmigan, who had demanded to know why he’d come back from evacuation early, and how his mother had given in to him, and Devon was a very nice place, if only he’d given it a chance. Well why didn’t she go, then? he muttered to himself.

Mr Marshall from the corner shop was on the front step, talking in a low, urgent voice to Ronnie’s mum. “You got your Anderson shelter yet?” They reckon we’re days away from a raid now – weather’s good, you see – you need to be safe, Lil”. Lilian Baxter wiped her hands on her apron. “Council said it’s coming this week, so Jerry will have to hold off the attack until our Fred can help build it on the weekend, when he’s back from Chatham docks..”

She half-turned to see Ronnie lurking, on his hopeful way to the pantry. “There you are, Ron. Have you done your letter to your Dad? I’m sending a parcel off today, so look sharp”. She half-closed the door behind her, but not before Ronnie heard Mr Marshall say: “Cheer up, Lil. Your old man’s a survivor, he’ll be home before you know it”.

Joan, Ronnie’s seventeen year old sister, came running lightly down the stairs. She glanced at her brother crossly: “Out of the way, dopey, some of us have got things to do”. She crossed to the front parlour and, reapplying lipstick to her dark red lips, surveyed Ronnie critically in the small mirror hanging over the mantlepiece. “Shouldn’t you be at school or something?”

Ronnie stared back at Joan’s reflected face. “Ain’t no school, is there? All the teachers have gone away. And the ARP Wardens have got my classroom anyway”. Joan paused. “Don’t say ain’t – isn’t. Your education’s going to pot, it is, and just because you got Mum to rescue you from Devon and bring you back home, don’t think you’re going to just sit around doing nothin’, you’ve got to pull your weight around here – there’s a war on, alright?”

Lilian came in and stopped when she saw her daughter. “Where are you off to, all done up? And you’ve got too much lipstick on, it’s not nice, Joan. Any more, and you’ll wear that tube out.” Joan sighed, and turned to face her mother. “Mum, they haven’t rationed makeup yet, and if they did, there’d be a riot! I’m going up West to meet Shirley, and to do a bit of shopping. I’ll pick up that blue wool you wanted, on the way home.”

Her mother raised her eyebrows: “Well, that’s a good idea, otherwise it’ll run out. Try Jakemans for some more blackout as well, will you…Listen, take your brother with you, he’s under my feet here.” Joan, aghast, started to argue but Lilian stepped in: “I want you home by five o’clock, so I know where we all are-” Ronnie leapt up: “But I’m busy Mum, I’m reading that geography book Dad got me – I even know where Gibraltar is!” His mother rounded on him. “You’ll know where it hurts in a minute – now come on, put on your shoes and go and help your sister.”

Joan, fuming, strode fast, and Ronnie had to run to catch her up, his gas mask box banging against his side. Joan had become very la-di-da since she had started work as a clerk at the Freemans Mail Order company in Clapham. She was no fun at all, these days, he thought. But he was careful not to mention it. In fact, ever since he had returned to London with his mother from that horrible place in Devon, Ronnie had kept a fairly low profile in case they decided to send him back. Half the children he knew in his neighbourhood had been packed up and evacuated last year away from what the grown-ups called the “danger” in London, but many were now returning as, like him, they missed their families too much, and their “foster” families had largely not wanted the imposition. Those cross old ladies, “Arsenic and Old Lace” he called them, hadn’t wanted to take him. He hadn’t been tall and strong like the other boys, so he was no use for working on the farm.

He’d lasted one month, largely kept confined to his bedroom, with no toys and nobody to talk to. He was permanently cold and when he was allowed out into the garden, threw a stone and accidentally broke a window in the greenhouse. He was once again shut up in the bedroom, this time without any supper. At night he carefully placed the “Ajax” card next to his head on the musty pillow, and prayed his father might somehow know what had happened to him. Ronnie finally managed to send a letter to his mum about his misery, and she’d arrived, white faced and angry with the two old ladies, who complained bitterly about him, and refused to say goodbye to either of them. It was on the train back to London, in his delirious joy at returning home, that Ronnie observed his mother sleeping, and saw how she looked grey and worn out and suddenly old.

The bus trundled up, and Ronnie followed Joan up to the front, where she unceremoniously pushed him into a seat. He began to complain, but Joan shushed him. “I was thinking Ron, I’m a bit busy this afternoon, do you fancy going to the flicks? ‘Pinocchio’ is on at Holborn. I’ll pay for it, and they might even have a ‘Laurel and Hardy’ feature. The little feather on her hat nodded enthusiastically, and Joan smiled brilliantly at him, and Ronnie sensed an opportunity. “Will you buy me the latest ‘Hotspur’ as well?” He frowned piously, “I’m having to re-read old ones at the moment.” Joan pursed her immaculate lips. “Alright, you little beggar – but just you stay outside afterwards, and wait for me to collect you.”

At Holborn, Joan held Ronnie’s collar firmly as she walked briskly amongst the crowds on the narrow pavements. Ronnie twisted away, and at the thought of watching a film and getting a new comic into the bargain, began to swoop in small circles around his sister: “And Captain Dan Blade, in his Destroyer jet, singlehandedly, neeowww!, takes out the German destroyer! “Ha ha, gentlemen, that’s given them a taste of their own medicine!”

There were a few parents queuing with children for tickets at the Empire, and they joined them, Ronnie hopping with excitement, Joan looking around her distractedly at the passers by. They had just bought Ronnie’s ticket, when a tall young man seemed to emerge from nowhere and limped towards them.

The man wore a double-breasted suit, and his baggy trousers had turnups. One hand pushed back his greased hair and the other was shoved deep in his trouser pocket. He smiled lazily under heavy eyebrows as he spotted them. “Hallo Joanie, who’s this then with you, a little gooseberry?” Ronnie started indignantly, but Joan stepped in, gaily laughing, and fluttered her red fingernails: “Oh hello, Stan, what a surprise! This is my little brother Ronald, Ronnie – but he’s going to the cinema while I go shopping, aren’t you, Ronnie dear?” Ronnie stared at his sister, now comprehending. The man put a shovel-like hand inside his suit pocket, and pulled out a slim package, which he now gave to Joan. She peeked at the contents, and gasped: “Where did you get those, there’s a war on! Oh Stan, you are a card!”

Stan winked heavily at Ronnie and smirked: “If you’ve got a bit of bunce, and you know where to go – “. The sudden blare of an air-raid siren split the afternoon haze, shocking his body into immobility and freezing Ronnie’s brain. Everyone stood immobile for long seconds, and then seemed to shake themselves, grab their families, clutch their belongings, turn this way and that, away from the cinema and out into the road. “Come on!” urged Stan, and he wheeled away, pulling Joan with him. Joan yanked Ron’s sleeve, and the three of them joined the steadily growing crowds of nervous people, half-walking, half-running down the street, trying to remain calm and heading for the nearest public shelter. “This is it, this is it” Stan muttered, and broke into a steady trot. Even through his rising fear, Ronnie noticed that Stan no longer seemed to limp. Joan, pulling Ronnie, stuttered after Stan’s long legs and panted “Why don’t we go under the arches? Hold up, Stan, we can’t run as fast as you!” He turned and snarled: “Where’s the bloody RAF when they’re needed? We’ll go down Holborn Tube, it’ll be too crowded under the arches – hurry up, kid, or we’ll leave you behind!”

Ronnie now held onto Joan desperately amongst the mass of men, women and children shouting and crying. A bald, middle-aged man pushed past him, shouting: “It’s Jerry! He’s coming! I bloody knew it!” Ronnie saw the man’s face in a blur, his feet now seemed to fly after his sister. He felt a rush of panic, but also exhilaration, his mind was numb, all was movement. He couldn’t see above the adults around him, the closed gates to the steps leading down to Holborn Tube and the ARP Warden who stood in front of them, his arm out in front of him to stop anyone from piling down to the underground depths of the station.

“You can’t come down here, it’s not allowed-” he shouted, his pink cheeks blowing out importantly. But in an instant, Stan punched him hard in the face, and pushed the man out of the way, his nose bleeding, and his helmet knocked askew. A woman screamed, and Ronnie gaped at Stan, who merely yanked savagely at the gates until they gave way. Now hordes were at their backs, overtaking them, trying to break through Joan and Ronnie’s grip, the shrieking siren urging on the panicking crowd. A woman shouted by Ronnie’s ear: “Marge, Marge, don’t lose me!” and shoved Ronnie hard in his back. He toppled forward, tripping over his feet and somebody else’s heels, to fall down the stairs, and as he looked up again wildly to find Joan, it was as if in slow motion that he watched his hand slip slowly out of her grasp, and she in turn, take hold of Stan’s lapel, and disappear into the dark.

Ronnie turned head over heels, banging his head against the sharp corners of the steps, and staggered painfully to his feet, only to be swept along again by jostling, sweating crowds intent upon going to deeper ground. At last, he rounded a corner and found himself on a platform. A cool rush of air met his face, and he instinctively clung to the curved tiled wall furthest away from the train track. Tens, no, hundreds of people now poured in behind him, swirling around the small boy, as if he were a leaf in a drain, overwhelmed by a torrent of storm water.

As the platform filled up, Ronnie, still flat against the wall, watched people sit down, bring out sandwiches and put on cardigans, some even laughing, if a little shakily. Ronnie did not feel like laughing. He stood alone, looking out into the gloom and the white glow of the unfamiliar faces, and tried to find Joan. It was no good, there were just too many people. She must be with Stan. Ronnie did not care for Stan. And now he worried about is mother worrying when he didn’t return. Ronnie was a London child, and he knew he could get home by himself if he had to. But he had no money and so couldn’t get a bus, he would have to walk. And Ronnie was very afraid that Mr Hitler and his brigade of stormtroopers were up there, marching about above them, waiting for them to come out, and then they would poison gas them all. Ronnie sat down very quietly, trying to remain unnoticed in his corner by a fire bucket, and pulled his sweater down over his knees to keep warm, as he continued to scan the crowds for Joan.

Ronnie became aware of a loud chattering. “I reckon they’re incendiaries” he heard a man say, “I mean, I think they’re worse than normal bombs, because with normal bombs, you’ve just got the main explosion, but these incendiaries, they start the fires, and then we’ve got them to deal with, an ‘all…” Ron opened his eyes. I must have dozed off, he thought. His head hurt, and he pushed some hair out of his eyes. A few people had got paraffin lamps and the glow from these, as well as several torches, lit up a vast number of people, sitting around in small groups, talking, playing cards, wrapped up against the chilly, smelly air. I must find Joan, he thought, and he started to weave his way quietly amongst the now calm people. As he peered at faces, he caught snatches of conversation: “Don’t let the beggars grind you down”…”If Hitler wants to come down ‘ere, we’ll give ‘im something to think about…”, “I’m a good bowler, just give me a grenade..”

He stopped, and found himself staring dully at what looked like a family, who sat in a circle around a glowing torch, and a pack of playing cards. The mother, (she must be the mother, Ronnie thought) was stout, and wore a brown mackintosh, tied up like a parcel around her stomach. Next to her was a thin, pale girl, about Joanie’s age, who was sorting her cards intently, and next to her, a boy about Ronnie’s age, eating a biscuit, and arguing with another dark haired girl, wearing glasses. There was a much older man who must be the dad, thought Ronnie, even though he looked a bit older than a dad. He looked nice. In fact, they all looked nice, a nice, normal family. Ronnie saw the mother reach into a tin and take out a cake. She started cutting up slices and handing them out to the family. Then, she happened to look up and spot Ronnie. “Hello, dear” she smiled, “would you like some cake?”

Ronnie hesitated. Then, realising suddenly that he was, in fact, extremely hungry, nodded. She pointed with her knife. “Take a pew, love, and join us. What’s your name, lovey?” “Ronnie” said Ronnie, gripping his “England Expects” box in his pocket. He sat very carefully on the outskirts of the family circle. Muttering a thanks, he crammed the large piece of fruit cake into his mouth, and after swallowing it all down, accepted a bottle of water from the girl with the glasses.

“We’re going to play Snap, do you know how to play?” The boy gestured at the cards. Resisting the impulse to say I’m not five you know!, Ronnie nodded. The boy looked at him: “Do you want to join in then?” Ronnie shrugged: “Don’t mind if I do. Got nothin’ else on”. The dad smiled quietly at the mother, and the older sister dealt the cards.

Now, they all collected their own stack of cards, and set them face down in front of them. The boy turned up his top card, a five of Hearts, and laid it down next to his stack. The girl with glasses then turned hers over – a nine of Clubs. Ronnie shyly turned his card over, a three of Clubs. The game sped up. Suddenly, the boy shouted “Snap!” as he turned up his eight of Diamonds which matched the older sister’s card. “Jumbo, you win!” yelled the Glasses girl, and they all laughed, as the boy rolled on his back in glee. “Jumbo!” whispered Ronnie to the Glasses girl. She grinned: “It’s coz he’s a big nosy parker! Jumbo, you see?” Ronnie laughed, and it was now his turn to play. He turned over a Jack of Spades. The Knave, his Dad used to say, when Ron and his family sat around playing cards before the war; the Knave is a baddie, Ron, his Dad would joke. Ron thought that Stan was probably a Knave. The Glasses girl, Katie, turned over a Jack of Diamonds. “Snap!” shouted Ron, rather more loudly than he meant to, and felt embarrassed. But the dad said “Well done, Ron, they’re yours!” and Ronnie felt elated. He began to relax, his head felt normal again, his scraped knees didn’t bother him, he felt warm and full, and within this strong, kind group, safe. he concentrated on shuffling and then sorting his stack of cards; this was familiar, this was alright.

He found he was enjoying himself so much, that Ronnie only just heard a voice calling his name. He turned, and saw Joan standing up out of the crowd, her shadow falling skewed against the platform wall. He dropped his card, and leapt up: “Joan, I’m here, I’m over here!” She ran to him, picking her way awkwardly over the reclining shapes, who dozed or read the papers, and hugged him to her. Joan’s lipstick had quite vanished, her face a little begrimed, and she had lost her hat. “Thank you for looking after him” she said to the mother, “we got separated at the top of the tube station”. The mother nodded: “oh it was terrible, love, but we’re alright down here, aren’t we?”

There was a chorus of “Yes we are’s”, and then Joan sat down next to Ronnie, and accepted a piece of cake. Ronnie looked at his sister: “I suppose that Stan’s coming over.” She shook her head: “Are you having a laugh? I couldn’t believe it when he hit that ARP Warden. Gave me a right shock, I can tell you, then he dropped my hand and ran for it, as soon as we got down the stairs – he saved himself, the coward! I’m putting the kibosh on that one.” She looked defiant, and smiling to himself, Ronnie turned to Katie. “Can my sister play Snap, too?” he asked.

Bridge Question from Christine Tomkin (EBU teacher)

You opened 1Heart
Partner responded 1Spade

What do you re-bid?

A glass of something to have when you settle down to read our holiday special edition.

Recommended by Addison Wines, the Muscadet Sévre et Maine Sur Lie ‘Chateau du Cléray’ from Domaine Sauvion is a perfect summer wine and makes an excellent accompaniment to salads and seafoods and really comes into its own over the summer months..

Pierre-Jean Sauvion is known as a brilliant and eccentric winemaker. A wine fanatic, he spent his childhood surrounded by vines at the Chateau du Cleray. The chateau has belonged to the family since 1935. It is one of the regions oldest family run estates, with beautiful vaulted cellars; located in the heart of the Nantes vineyards, the sileceous and clay soils produce a late and full-bodied Muscadet. The dominant aromas are lemon, green apple, with mint and linden flower flavours.

Well known wine critic Robert Parker writes of this estate : “…Sauvion is undoubtedly the best-known Muscadet producer… Sauvion’s consistent level of fine quality is undeniable as well as admirable.”

Bridge Answer

Bridge Answer: 3Spades

Support partner’s Spade’s.

3Spades is encouraging, but not forcing.

As you have 17 points it looks inviting to bid 4Spades.

But remember responder may only have 6 points.

Quiz Cards to refresh your memory!

These cards are brilliant for a spot of holiday revision. The green pack is easier and the red pack has some harder questions.

Useful Holiday Packing

A personalised tin of twin pack of playing cards.

All ready to use at home, for staycations and for travelling.
So easy to pack in your bag and have playing cards with you for impromptu games, keeping the children occupied
or, sitting by yourself, and having a peaceful ‘hygge’ moment playing solitaire.

Have a lovely summer, wherever you are.