The Lyndesfarne Bridge Novels by Trevor Hopkins

Bridge at War: Chapter 14

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Terraced houses Tom had been brought up by his Granny after his parents had died quite young. He had spent his formative years in an urban area of Tyneside called Long Benton.

The area was tessellated with terraced houses and cobbled streets - row after row of tiny houses build to accommodate the workforce for the heavy industry so typical of the age: collieries, iron foundries and so on. These dark satanic mills did at least provide employment and income for many, even in the impoverished days of the Twenties and Thirties. Besides, there were at some open areas, parks and common land where it was possible to walk freely, as well as centres of active social life, focussed on the working man's clubs and public houses.

Outwardly, Tom's Granny was a rather fierce old woman, proud and independent, although physically tiny and rather frail. She had been herself widowed quite young, when her only daughter was but a child. Nevertheless, within this rather gruff exterior, there really did beat the proverbial heart of gold. As far as he knew, Tom was almost her only living relative, and the old woman seemed to make it her life's work to bring up the youngster.

Tom knew that his grandmother had taken him in as a young orphan, despite having almost nothing herself. For many years, she made a living taking in washing. It did seem to Tom, however, that Granny was in receipt of occasional sums of money, gifts whose source he had never really established. From time to time, small envelopes and packages would arrive in the post. They were never the same size or colour, but there was some characteristic commonality that he could not quite put his finger on.

Whatever the source of the windfalls, Tom was sure that the sums involved were fairly modest, but they were enough to ensure that they were a little better off than their neighbours. Certainly, he never had to go hungry, and the money also allowed for an extended education of a kind. He was at least capable of the Three R's, and was able to stay on at school for an extra year, at a time when his friends were already seeking labouring jobs, or queuing up for mining work down the pits.

From Granny herself, he had learnt the virtues of hard work, honesty, thrift and, perhaps most importantly, self-deprecation under almost all circumstances. It was certainly true that some combination of natural personality and the circumstances of his birth meant that Tom was a rather quiet and introspective individual, one who was likely to form his own opinions on any topic rather than being led by his acquaintances.

Tom also developed an early interest in motor vehicles and engines from a man named George. He was an old friend of the family, it seemed, although following the convention of the time, Tom had been taught to refer to the other man as "Uncle George". With hindsight, George was really quite a young man, although it seemed to a pre-pubescent Tom that he was nearly as ancient as Granny. He had prematurely grey hair and bookish spectacles, and seemed to be perpetually clothed in greasy overalls.

Tom would spend long hours in the building which was at one time a corner shop, but had been converted into a garage and workshop, watching and listening carefully as Uncle George worked on all kinds of oily machinery. The older man would talk incessantly while he worked, and did not really seem to expect any kind of response. Most of his remarks concerned the defects of the engine he was currently repairing, quietly pointing out the points of wear on a bearing, or the effects of a leaking gasket.

In time, as Tom showed himself to be reliable, George began to delegate small tasks for the young man to undertake: washing the dirty oil from engine components using a splash of petrol from a tin can or, later, dismantling and cleaning the delicate springs and valves of a carburettor.

By time he was fifteen, Tom knew a great deal about engines and motor cars in general. On leaving school, he was instructed by Granny that he would be working with his "Uncle", as a sort of apprentice. Tom was happy enough to comply. George himself never mentioned this arrangement, but seemed unsurprised by Tom's regular appearance. Needless to say, the modest income from this employment went directly to Granny, although Tom did receive an increased weekly allowance - "pocket money" - from the old lady.

It was with Uncle George that he first learned to drive. One afternoon, the old mechanic had quietly directed Tom into the driver's seat of an ancient Hillman he had been working on for weeks, and suggested that he 'start her up'.

Tom had of course been watching closely when he had accompanied George on test drives or on trips into neighbouring areas to collect spare parts. Even so, he made a complete hash of his first attempt to set off, the venerable car bucking and jerking wildly as he fumbled with the clutch. Nevertheless, he was a quick study, and it was not long before he was driving everywhere, at first on errands with George sitting peaceably in the passenger seat and later, and with growing confidence, on his own.

Tom had vaguely expected that he would at some time take up an apprenticeship in the motoring or allied trades, but the War intervened. With typical Army inefficiency, the recruitment organisation ignored Tom's evident enthusiasm and ability with vehicles and machinery, and had placed him in a standard infantry regiment, where he had minimal opportunity to use his skills.

Granny had died, quite suddenly, some time after Tom had joined the army. Tom knew that she was never really strong, and suspected that it was force of willpower which had kept her alive for as long as it had.

He only learned about her death in a letter from George, which had arrived torn and stained, and seemed to have received the attentions of the official censor on at least two separate occasions. By the time he had received the letter, Tom was in France battling his way towards Berlin, and the funeral had already taken place. There was no way he could have attended even if the letter had arrived swiftly, given the urgencies of the invasion and the advance into Germany.

Before he had been called up, Tom had once again quizzed Granny about his parents. For many years, she had adroitly side-stepped his boyish questions about his parents. On this last occasion, however, it seemed he had reached a point where she presumably felt he was old enough to both understand and to cope with the sense of loss.

Pre-war parlour Granny had sat Tom down with a cup of tea in the parlour, then sat facing him with an expression which seemed to combine a deep sadness with a sudden inner resolution.

"Well, now that you are - barely - old enough to understand what I have to say," She began, "I suppose it is my duty to tell you everything. But I do confess that I don't understand everything that happened, nor do I expect you to."

"What do you mean?"

"Shhh. Don't interrupt. This is hard enough for me as it is."

The old woman sat silently for a moment.

"Your mother Elizabeth - Lizzie - was a wonderful girl, pretty and vivacious. A good girl, always ready to help her old Mum when I was busy with the washing."

Tom could not help but feel a lump in his throat whenever he heard his mother's name spoken aloud. The tale also seemed to be affecting Granny. He could see the glint of a tear in her eye - something that he had never seen before.

"Lizzie always had plenty of admirers, local boys, but no one she was serious about. I think she thought that none of them were good enough for her. I began to think she would become an Old Maid, spending her years looking after me rather than making her own life."

"Then she met Brad - Bradley Perkins. He was someone she had met while visiting the summer market - a travelling fair which had set up on the common."

Granny pursed her lips.

"I have to admit that, at first, I had my suspicions about young Brad. He always seemed rather flippant, never quite answering any of my questions directly, although I have to say that he always treated me with the highest regard. Even so, I was sure he was a rogue, just trifling with your Mothers affection."

Tom was listening intently, drinking in the story.

"After a few weeks," the old woman continued, "The fair moved on, and I fully expected never to see Brad again. But Lizzie was convinced that he would be back soon. I feared that she would be heartbroken, losing the first man she had ever really loved. So you can imagine my surprise when, just a few days later, Brad turned up on my doorstep, asking for Lizzie."

"Their courtship lasted nearly two years. Brad travelled a lot, and he would go away for days or weeks at a time. But they wrote letters to each other while they were apart, all the time. I can still see her radiant smile when the postman called."

"I was soon forced to the conclusion that he was quite serious in his interest in her," she continued, "I can still remember clearly the day that Brad proposed to Lizzie, here in this very room, dropping to his knee and asking for her hand. Of course she said yes immediately."

"He presented her with a beautiful engagement ring - something he said had been in his family for generations. The dear boy even took the precaution of asking me about Lizzie - as if I had any real say in the matter!"

The old woman stopped suddenly, with a sob in her voice. The tears were running down Granny's face, as if her pent-up emotions were finally being released by telling her grandson about his past.

Finally, she dried her eyes with a handkerchief, and went on.

"I always felt that Brad had some secret, something in his background. Oh, I knew he was an adventurer, a traveller, but he did seem to have money. He also had a large number of relatives, all from the north, who turned up in force for the wedding and the celebration afterwards. The newlyweds even managed a honeymoon away, staying with some of Brad's relatives up north - I never knew exactly were."

Granny paused again, shaking her head slowly.

"Anyway, after the hoo-hah of the wedding had died down, things couldn't have been better for Lizzie. A generous gift from some distant relative of your father allowed them to set up home in a street not far from the common where they had met. I would visit regularly, and she would come here, too. She always seemed so happy, smiling and singing aloud - she had a wonderful voice."

"The years passed, and you were born. Lizzie seemed complete, content in her role as wife and mother. I was rather looking forward to having a brood of grandchildren around my feet."

Granny looked wistfully at Tom for a moment.

"You were always a good child, you know. Never really poorly, slept through the night from an early age."

"Then, one evening five years or so after the wedding, Lizzie came to see me unexpectedly. You were toddling, no more, and tired by the time you arrived. Your mother was holding you close, as if she never wanted to let you go."

"'Ma,' she said hurriedly, 'I'm going away, with Brad. I don't know when I'll be coming back. I want you to look after Thomas' - she always called you that - 'until I return. It's very important. Please don't asked questions, because otherwise I will just have to lie to you. Really, it's better that you don't know.'"

"And with that, she thrust you into my arms. That was the last time I ever saw her."

Despite Granny's earlier admonishment, Tom could not help blurting out.

"So they could still be alive?"

Granny smiled wanly.

"I don't think so. It must have been something dangerous, too dangerous to take you along as a babe. I feel sure that, if she was still alive, she would have returned for you. I can't imagine any mother's instinct letting her not return to her child if she could - and my Lizzie was always the perfect mother."

"There's one further thing," Granny said, after a reflective pause, "I think I know more, or at least I knew more at one time. And now somehow I can't bring it to mind even though it's on the tip of my tongue."

She shook here head, as if to clear cobwebs from her mind.

"That's all I can tell you, I'm afraid."

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