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book cover for Perfect Fools Perfect Fools
a novel by Charlotte Vale-Allen

London - 1944

In the few seconds after the bomb hit and before she died, she gave no thought whatsoever to Sarah. Nor did she think of Stephen. The walls around them burst inwards, sending up great gusts of plaster dust, and she attempted to sit up, thinking, Damn, damn! It's not fair, not bloody fair! And then the upper stories of the house descended through the ceiling, taking her and Nigel, the bed, the room, the entire floor, down, down.

The whole street was razed and it took two days for the patrols and workmen to dig their way through the rubble to the bodies. Digging further, they turned up a woman's handbag and quite a number of files of papers and letters. Since all the residents of that particular building had been accounted for with the exception of Nigel Ramsdale, it was generally agreed upon that the male body had, therefore, to be his. And the woman, according to the identification contained in the handbag, was one Olivia Breswick. An address in Mayfair. Two nude bodies, white with plaster dust, purple with internal bleeding, their limbs and heads battered, bloody. An officer was dispatched to the Mayfair address.

She'd said she'd be back in two hours, Sarah thought again and again, trying the door repeatedly, hoping to find it somehow unlock-ed. A long long time, she knew. It'd been ever such a long time, lots longer than two hours. And she needed to go to the toilet so badly. She couldn't hold it in any longer and, feeling dreadful, knowing Mummy would be frightfully angry with her, she used the teapot. Then she sat on her bed in the dark crying, knowing, almost hearing, how angry Mummy would be.

Sitting in the dark, she dared to peek out past the heavy blackout curtains hoping to see Mummy coming back up the mews. But the street was empty, black. The sky went bright, then dark; there was the dulled, distant crashing of bombs, and, later on, the all-clear sirens. She switched on the small lamp and looked at the clock, trying to decide what time it was, further upset because she couldn't remember if the big hand gave the hour or the little one. Was it three past ten or ten to three? She started crying again because no matter which time was the right one, Mummy had been gone a long, long while. Finally, exhausted, she curled up on the floor by the door and fell asleep, telling herself that when she awoke Mummy would be back and the door would again be open.

When she did wake up, feeling stiff and achey-cold from having slept on the floor, she sat up on her knees to try the door, withdrew her hand from the knob with a cry at discovering the door still locked, and got to her feet to pound on the door with her fists, crying out loudly for Mummy to come. Then, going quiet, she listened to the silence of the house. She's not there, she thought, turning to look about the room. She went over to switch off the lamp, then picked up the clock and looked at it again, this time trying to decide if it was nine to five or five past nine. It must have been five past nine because beyond the blackout curtains it was very light outside. She put down the clock and went to tug open the curtains and gaze down the length of the mews to see the lady who lived over the way coming out of her door with her shopping bag. Mummy will be back soon, she told herself, moving away from the window to look at the tray on the table. The teapot. She'd peed in the teapot. Mummy would be livid. Thinking now about the teapot, she suddenly had to go again. Badly. And she was hungry, too. There was nothing left of yesterday's tea; she'd eaten it all. And now she had to go again and she was so hungry her stomach hurt. She ran to the door to pull at the knob with both hands. Enraged, she kicked as hard as she could at the door, succeeding only in hurting her foot which made her start crying afresh.

When she couldn't wait any longer, she used the teacup and the plate, then covered them with the traycloth, backing away knowing she'd be punished horribly for doing this. She felt awful - wet and sticky, because she hadn't had anything with which to wipe herself, and angry, so angry. It seemed to be filling her up inside, making her want to start screaming. When Mummy did come back, Sarah would scream at her. It was all your fault I had to, you stayed longer than you promised. But she'd never stayed out so long before. Never.

The anger gave way to a new, different kind of fear; she returned to the window to watch the street. She wrapped her hands around the two bars running across the lower half of the window, the bars Mummy said were there to keep her from falling out in summer when the window was allowed to be kept open only if Sarah promised not to go near it. Holding on to the bars, she stared out, positive at any moment she'd see Mummy appear at the entrance to the mews and come clicking over the cobblestones in her high-heeled shoes. She felt a spurt of elation imagining it. She could almost see her, she wanted it so much. Come on, Mummy! Come home now! I'm ever so hungry and where have you been? The elation dissolved; the anger returned. She kicked the wall under the window. Where are you?

In the late afternoon, when it began to get dark, she got up and went yet again to the window, to look once more down the length of the mews, then at the houses on the far side, the ones she could see. They all had their curtains drawn. I won't draw them! she thought defiantly. And she'd keep the light on as well. But then, thinking about it, imagining all sorts of things - her mother's anger, or one of those airplanes with the bombs seeing the light from her window and dropping its bombs right there in the mews - she thought she'd best draw the curtains after all and dragged over the chair to stand on it, pulling the weighty curtains into place. The dust tickled her nose, making her sneeze as she jumped down from the chair and stopped to gaze at the covered tray with its bad-smelling plate and cup and teapot. If she had to go again she didn't know what she'd do; there was nothing left to go in.

Sitting on the floor with her back against the bed, feeling the cold air pushing in from under the door, she looked very slowly around the room. She was dizzy with hunger and anger, and fear now, too, because perhaps Mummy had decided to go away forever and wasn't ever coming back. All the times she'd yelled so loudly, or muttered as if Sarah couldn't hear or understand. Why the bloody hell did it have to happen to me? What did I ever do to deserve this? She'd looked at Sarah with her mouth all tight and her eyes hard like green glass so that Sarah knew she'd done something terrible, some awful thing in getting born, and because of that, Mummy was always angry with her.

Reaching over to pull the blankets off the bed, she wrapped them around herself, remembering way way back to when Mummy had taken the blackboard and had printed out the ABCs to teach them to her. Then, becoming impatient, she'd knocked down the blackboard and the chalk, left the crayons and the pieces of paper, and had stalked out, enraged, to go slamming things about in the kitchen getting the tea. So, thinking to surprise and please her, Sarah had carefully, slowly copied all the letters on to the pages with the orange crayon, her favorite color. But later on when Mummy had come up with the tea, she hadn't even wanted to look at what Sarah had done.

Then, some other time - Sarah couldn't remember when it had been - Mummy had tried again, with some little books. She'd sounded out words, explaining how the letters fitted together, again becoming furious. Always so angry. She'd thrown the little books on the floor. Her anger had made Sarah feel sleepy and thick. But she'd left the books and Sarah sat with them for hours on end. Now, she knew them all by heart, every single last one of them. She could even print the words; but Mummy never wanted to look, didn't ever again bring out the blackboard or come with any new books. She'd brought in an old wireless and shouted at Sarah never to touch where the wire went into the holes in the wall. It was the last thing she'd ever brought.

She doesn't love me, Sarah concluded, not for the first time. Love was something she recalled from the time she was very very small, a long time ago when there were two of them. Daddy. He was fighting in the war. The war was why the bombs came at night. Maybe he'll come back and open the door, I've got to go so badly.

She pulled the blankets over her head and slept on the floor beside the bed. If she wet the floor it wouldn't matter so much as it would if she wet the bed.

She heard the banging at the door and threw off the blankets, jumped up to run to the door of her room, crying out to let whoever was out there know she was inside. She waited, listening. The banging came again, then stopped. Her heart pounding, she ran to the window and yanked back the curtains, but even pressing right up against the bars she was unable to see who was down there. No more banging. They were going away. She struggled to raise the window but it wouldn't budge and she wasn't strong enough, could hardly reach up to the sill. She began pounding her fists on the glass, trying to make enough noise to let them know she was in there. Her fists shattered the glass. The glass made blood. She pulled back her hands, gaping at them, for a moment forgetting what she'd been doing, in awe at the sight of her own blood.

Outside, hearing the glass breaking, the officer stepped into the middle of the mews to look up but saw only the broken window. Someone was in there, right enough though, and had smashed that window. He hurried back to the front door, half-expecting it to open, trying to make some sense of what was happening. He debated for several moments then braced himself and applied his foot to the door. It took four good kicks before the wood around the lock splintered and the door burst inwards with a tremendous crash.

He wondered if there'd be a to-do about the broken door as his eyes took in the entrance hall. Wealthy people lived here. Had lived here. The woman was dead. But obviously there was at least one other. He moved towards the stairs hearing an odd, muted wailing coming from above, almost an animal sound. His eyes took in the pictures on the landing wall and the closed doors which confronted him as he followed the noise down the hall. He came to a stop and tried the door from behind which the sounds were coming. Locked. What the bloody hell? he wondered, asking aloud, "Who's in there, then?" and heard the garbled sounds take on renewed strength and volume.

In for a penny, he thought, loudly saying, "Stand well back from the door!" He applied his foot to this second door which gave at once and swung open. He stood staring at the tiny, wild-haired child with a dirt and tear-streaked face, a cruelly twisted upper lip, holding out her bloodied hands. His nostrils were assaulted by the foul odor in the room.

"Here now," he said, approaching the child who looked no more than three or four. "You've cut yourself, haven't you? Let's have a look, luv."

She lifted her head to look at him with large, very deep blue, very frightened eyes and began making strangled, indecipherable noises.

"No need to be afraid," he said quietly, squinting slightly as if that might better enable him to understand the stream of guttural, choked-sounding noises issuing from the child's misshapen mouth. He reached into his pocket for his handkerchief, thinking to wrap her hands and stop the blood; but realizing that wouldn't be of much use, he placed his hand gingerly on her narrow little shoulder to direct her out of the stench in search of the bathroom where there was bound to be something more appropriate to use on her hands.

She seemed to be trying to say something and plainly growing frustrated with the effort, her small but somehow very mature features screwing up as she persisted in trying to make herself understood.

"Everything's all right now, luv," he said, automatically opening the doors on the landing one by one until he located the bathroom. "You come along in here with me now and we'll see about cleaning up those cuts."

She shook her head violently, sniffing impatiently at the tears and mucus running down her face, pushing out yet more nonsensical sounds at him. Poor tot, he thought, directing her hands under the cold-water tap and telling her, "Stand here while I have a look, see if I can't find some plasters or bandage, something to put on those cuts."

She did as she was told, he was relieved to see. Her chest was heaving as she obediently stood with her hands under the cold water - on her very tiptoes in order to do it - her round blue eyes following his movements about the bathroom, her mouth not quite so awful-looking now that she'd calmed down a bit. The plasters and medicines were in the chest on the wall, she knew, but couldn't get him to understand so she went silent and waited for him to find out for himself. She imagined how Mummy would react to this man's being in the house, looking through their things this way. But where was she? And it jolly well served her right for not being here all this time. It made her angry and scared all over again, thinking this, and she shivered, feeling frozen as the water turned her hands numb, even made her teeth feel cold. Her teeth and her hair, all of her cold. Then, remembering, she said, "I'm hungry," hoping he'd understand.

"Nh ngr," he heard and turned, wishing he knew what she was trying to say. He'd found a bottle of iodine and some sticking plasters and went to turn off the water, then dried her hands carefully, saying, "Afraid I can't make out what you're trying to tell me, luv. This'll sting a wee bit now," he said, opening the iodine bottle. He glanced up to see her nod. She seemed very trusting, her eyes following his every movement with interest rather than suspicion.

"Cut yourself up nicely, didn't you?" He smiled, dabbing at the numerous cuts with the iodine. She flinched but didn't make a sound and he admired her for it. His own two would've brought the roof down with their screams. But this child didn't give way. She sniffed once or twice, her eyes never leaving his face as he ascertained to his satisfaction that there were no fragments of glass lodged in any of the wounds. "Good girl," he said with another smile, giving her a pat on the shoulder when he'd finished bandaging her hands as best he could. "We'll give your face a wash now. And later on, get a doctor to have a look at you."

Was this Daddy? she wondered, then thought he couldn't possibly be. She said something and he strained to understand her.

"I'm sorry, luv," he said gently. "Afraid I just can't make sense of what it is you're trying to tell me." He studied her small face feeling an odd, welling affection for her. She seemed to be making such a valiant effort to communicate. "How old're you then, luv? Do you know?"

She nodded and held up five fingers of the one hand and two of the other.

"Seven? You're never seven!" he exclaimed.

She nodded again. Then, her features drawing closed, she thought for a moment before holding out her hands and making writing motions, watching his face intently as she did, willing him to comprehend.

"What?" he asked, bending down closer to her. She made more noises in her throat and he watched her hands, all at once understanding, and reached into his uniform pocket for his notepad and pencil, handing them over to her with mounting curiosity. He watched as she positioned the notepad on the rim of the sink and began slowly, carefully printing out neat little letters.

"Where is Mummy?" the printing read. He looked at it feeling a sudden heaviness in his limbs.

"Mummy's had an accident," he explained, moving to take her hand. He'd bring her to the station where they'd see to a doctor and from there perhaps she'd go to one of the children's shelters. She pulled back her hand, reaching once more for the notepad. He gave it to her and she printed, "Eat," then showed it to him.

He smiled, thinking she wasn't half clever. "Hungry, are you? We'll set that right straight away."

Taking a careful hold of her impossibly small hand, trying to make himself accept that a child this size could possibly be seven, he led her down the stairs asking, "Where's your coat, then, luv?"

She shook her head, looking at him blankly.

"It's all right," he said reassuringly. "I'm going to take you where you'll be looked after."

She shook her head again and pointed to his uniform pocket, her eyes no longer blank.

Beginning to feel wearied by all this, he again gave her the notepad.

She printed, "no cote."

"No coat? You haven't got a coat?"

She shook her head.

"That's daft!" he argued. "Of course you've got a coat."

Her head went from side to side. She opened her mouth and got out a decipherable, "No!"

"Well, there's bound to be something," he said, throwing open the cloakroom door to lift a jacket down from the hook. "This'll have to do," he said, fitting her thin little arms into the sleeves. They hung a good foot past her hands and the bottom reached to the floor. Imagine a child not having a bloody coat! he thought. No bloody coat and living in a house like this! There must be one and she's just being stubborn or afraid. He buttoned the jacket, once again took hold of her damaged hand, and moved with her towards the front door. On the threshold, she hung back, pulling against his hand.

"It's all right," he repeated, wondering what was bothering her now.

She tried to tell him but he simply didn't understand what she was saying. I've never been out, never been out into the street. Mummy never took me. I'm afraid. Yet she was curious, too. Very curious.

"Come along, luv," he coaxed. "No harm'll come to you. I'm a police officer. You understand?"

A police officer. She didn't understand. She'd thought perhaps he was one of the soldiers in some kind of uniform. What's a police officer? she wondered. Sometimes they'd spoken of police people on the wireless, but Mummy hadn't ever explained who they were or what it was they did.

A cluster of neighbors had collected just outside the front door, wondering what was going on. Sarah looked through the open doorway at them.

"Does any of you know the child," he asked the neighbors, noting the puzzlement creasing their faces. "Or the parents? Any of you?"

One woman, her eyes on Sarah, whispered to the woman beside her, "Poor child looks frightened half to death. What d'you suppose is wrong with her mouth?"

"Do you know her?" the policeman asked.

"It's one of them harelips," the other woman whispered back as the first woman gave Sarah a sad little smile and said, "She must be 'ers. But it don't make no sense, does it?"


"What I mean, see, is I been char next door 'ere nine years now and I never did know the one 'ad a kid."

"The one? You mean Mrs. Breswick?"

"That's right. I remember years ago seein' 'er, askin' when was the baby comin' and then there never was no baby, was there? And you don't like to ask, do you? I thought she must've lost it, poor thing. I was that sorry for her, I was."

Nothing was making sense, he thought. He'd get the child to the station and let the others figure out what to do with her.

"Someone will be coming round shortly to see to the door," he addressed the small knot of people. Selecting one man who looked to be a responsible sort, he said, "You might keep an eye on the place, if you would, sir. We'll have someone round within the hour."

"I say," the man said awkwardly, "has something happened to Mrs. Breswick?"

"Caught in the raid two nights back, I'm afraid," the officer said somberly, adjusting the chin strap on his helmet.

"I expect you'll be wanting to notify Captain Breswick won't you?"

"Army, is it?"

"That's right."

"Do you know the child, sir?"

"Afraid not," he answered, staring at Sarah so that she averted her eyes, looking down at the ground and moving slightly closer to the policeman. "Had no idea actually there was a child in the house. Extraordinary!" he said, looking mystified. "Quite extraordinary! One's usually well aware of children."

"Come along, luv," the officer said quietly, sensing the child's fear. "We'll get you something to eat on the way." He looked down at her. She was quite a pretty child, really, except for her mouth. Lovely large eyes of a wonderful violet blue. Scrubbed up, with some decent clothes and her hair brushed, she wouldn't be half bad. As they walked along, he wondered what sort of people lived in a house like that and kept a child of seven locked away in an upstairs room.

She looked around as they walked, her legs feeling funny. She'd never walked on pavement before. And she didn't have proper shoes, she didn't think. The pavement was hard, made her legs jar into their sockets. And these, she thought, must be the shops where Mummy goes. These are shops and I'm walking on pavement and this is a policeman and we're Outside. I'm being let Outside. Mummy will be frightfully angry.

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