The Lyndesfarne Bridge Novels by Trevor Hopkins

Bridge at War: Chapter 3

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Durham Cathedral Tom woke early, as was his habit. Despite the infamously enthusiastic wake-up approaches adopted by Sergeant-Majors the world over, he had consistently managed to be awake before the Sarge's noisy morning entrance. Despite the slightly cramped position in the compartment, he had actually slept very well on the train. Not wanting to disturb his companions, he sat and watched the countryside rush past the steamed-up window, all misty in the early morning light. He even caught a glimpse of Durham cathedral and castle looking ethereal in the dawn half-light, as the train passed through the ancient city.

The others were woken by the train's arrival at Berwick station. The noise from other people moving up and down the corridor, and the clatter and jerks of their arrival, served as an effective wake-up call on a par with any Non-Commissioned Officer they had hitherto encountered.

With the practised ease that experience of military service had given them, the three companions pulled themselves and their belongings into order. They decamped onto the platform and followed the crowd to the ticket barrier, where they gave up their travel warrants and tickets. The young men then found a spot clear of the foot traffic on the station forecourt, and held a short conference to decide upon their next steps. The consensus, reached unsurprisingly quickly, was that cups of tea and some breakfast was the highest priority.

"So let's find a cafe," Alistair said.

"Suits me," Bram agreed.

"Any idea which way we should go?" Tom asked.

"Not really," Bram answered, casting around, "But my guess is that way."

He indicated a street directly across from the station which appeared to go down towards the old town centre. There was a Lyon's Tea Shop on the corner, but by unspoken agreement they all felt that this was rather too grand for a group of young men who had just slept in their clothes on an overnight train.

They continued down the hill towards the town square. On the corner, they spotted a large and slightly rundown cafe which was reassuringly packed with men who looked as if they had spent their entire life sleeping in their clothes. Perhaps this was an exaggeration, Tom thought, but we really don't stand out in here.

They entered the emporium, allowing a fair quantity of steam and general fug to escape from the interior. Tom ordered mugs of tea and plates of sausage and fried bread from the brisk matron behind the counter. She looked at the three men severely until Tom produced a handful of silver coins from his pocket, whereupon the suspicious look was immediately replaced by a tight smile which extended her lips but did not seem to reach to her eyes.

Sausage breakfast Tom handed over a half-crown, and received a few coppers in change. The matron also took their ration-books and clipped a few coupons to represent their breakfast fare. They picked up their plates and mugs and looked for somewhere to sit.

The dining room was crowded, and the only available space was at one end of a large table. The other end was already occupied by a rather dour-looking older man reading a newspaper. He was bulky and solidly built, with the look of a man who had worked the land his entire life, and who would think nothing of picking up a sheep with one hand. Bram enquired politely as to whether he would mind if the young men sat down. This request was acknowledged with a grunt and a wave of a large palm.

The companions were silent for a while, concentrating on the task in hand, that of consuming their breakfast. This activity completed, they returned to the topic of their next steps, where to go and how to go about finding suitable paid employment. After a few minutes, they were interrupted by the taciturn older man clearing his throat.

"I couldn't help but overhear," he began, "Now you boys sound like you need somewhere to go, and it just so happens I'm on the lookout for a few likely lads who aren't afraid of a little hard work. Are you interested?"

Tom and Alistair glanced at each other. Bram spoke for all three of them.

"We most certainly are, sir."

The older man stood up, folding the newspaper and slipping it into the pocket of his worn tweed jacket.

"Well then," he said with what Tom would later learn to be characteristic deliberation, "The name's Smith, John Smith."

Alistair, who was the nearest to the farmer, was already on his feet and extending his hand.

"Alistair McLaughlin," he said.

"A Scot, I take it," the farmer replied.

"Yes, sir. From Sutherland. My folks had a smallholding up there."

"I see. That explains the accent, then. And you, lad?" he continued, turning to Bram.

"Bram Stoker, sir. I've worked a bit with animals."

The farmer nodded slowly as Bram stepped back and allowed Tom to come forward.

"Thomas Perkins, sir. Not worked on a farm, but willing to be taught, sir," he said, shaking hands. He noticed that John's hands felt every bit as large and calloused as they had appeared.

"I see," the farmer continued, "Well, I dare say you'll get a chance to learn."

The older man stood back, hands on hips, surveying the three companions' empty plates and mugs.

"Ready to go?" he asked.

Ex-army truck Farmer John directed the young men to a lorry parked to one side of the square. This was a transport with which they were entirely familiar from their time in the Armed Forces. They had endured many a bumpy ride in France and Germany, and Tom sometimes felt as if he had made the personal acquaintance of every pothole in northern Europe.

The companions clambered under the canvas covers and into the back of the truck, which looked very much like it had seen considerable service in the Army, and more recently used to transport a wide variety of farm produce. They padded themselves with their coats and bags as best they could before the lorry set off with a jerk for the trip to the farm which was to become their home for the next few months.

Old Stone Barn Their first view of Holme Farm, caught emerging from the canvas-covered lorry, was a cluster of grey stone buildings, all very square and solid - much like the farmer himself, mused Tom - all set around a walled yard. The boundaries of the yard were partially formed from several stone-built barns, one of which was to act as accommodation for the companions throughout that summer. Others, they were later to discover, housed a diary or provided stabling for horses.

The entire farm was set in a secluded valley between two low hills, with self-evidently well-tended fields bounded by hedges and dry stone walls, and sheltered from the easterly winds by a spinney of mature trees. Just outside the farmhouse itself was a series of stone drinking troughs, fed from a spring still flowing strongly even after the recent hot and dry weather. The overflow was channelled to a stream they had crossed by a low bridge at the entrance to the farm, a bridge so overgrown with vegetation that it could barely be distinguished from the adjacent hedgerows.

John Smith dismounted from the truck and bellowed.

"Edna! Newcomers!"

At the summons, his wife bustled out. She was a woman who looked as if her normally vigorous and optimistic outlook had taken a huge blow in the recent past. She smiled rather wanly at the three friends. Her husband rapidly explained that he had met these young men evidently looking for work and had engaged them immediately.

"Come in, come in," she said, smiling a little more widely and directing all of them into the farmhouse.

Once inside, she turned around and took a closer look at their demob suits, which would not have stood out in a city street but were certainly not at all appropriate for working on the land. She disappeared upstairs and returned a few moments later with an armful of clothing which turned out to be much more suitable: stout trousers, boots and loose-fitting striped cotton shirts, all very heavy and well-washed, obviously not new, but of good - if rather homespun - quality.

Edna had also brought down a collection of headgear, and the three young men each picked up a hat apiece. Alistair picked up a floppy brown felt hat with a wide brim, and put it on his head. It made him look uncomfortably like the village yokel, and the other two could not help laughing aloud at his appearance.

"I need to have something to keep the sun off my face," he explained apologetically, "I burn something dreadful in the summer if I'm not careful."

Once they had picked out suitable attire, they were shown around the yard and directed to the upper floor to the barn to settle in. It was a lot more comfortable than they might have expected, with real beds and heavy curtains which offered a certain amount of both privacy and warmth. The men changed their clothes rapidly, and stowed their gear neatly in cubby-holes provided for that very purpose.

They returned to the farmhouse and presented their new appearance to the farmer and his wife. The second-hand clothes fitted Bram and Tom well enough, but were a bit loose at the waist and short at the ankle for Alistair. It was clear to all that he needed help to keep his trousers up. John looked at him, and his face broke into an uncharacteristic smile.

"I know what you need," he said, "Belt, braces and bailing twine."

Even Edna's sad visage brightened at this quip. Tom suspected that the clothing had originally belonged to someone else at the farm. He was later to discover that the farmer and his wife had lost a son, their only son, in the closing stages of the War. Edna in particular seemed happy to have a few young men around the farm, and could occasionally be caught looking wistfully at the three companions.

Life on the farm soon developed a familiar pattern. The companions woke at sunrise, and completed a collection of morning chores before breakfast. Once fortified with generous quantities of stodgy food, they were directed to the main activities of that day and sent off to carry out their tasks. At first, John would come by to inspect their progress several times a day but, as it became clear that the young men applied themselves diligently to the task at hand, they were often left alone for days at a time.

Shire horse Much of the farm work was carried out by teams of two or four heavy Shire horses, their hooves huge as dinner plates, or so it seemed to Tom. Both Alistair and Bram declared themselves familiar with working horses, and certainly seemed to be able to handle the beasts to the satisfaction of the farmer. Tom was much less comfortable with the animals, but found his forte in driving and maintaining tractors and other machinery powered by internal combustion engines. The farm owned a couple of pre-war tractors, whose use was limited in these post-War days by fuel rationing. More fuel was slowly becoming available, as farming had priority over non-essential uses, but there was a limit to the amount of work which could be done using such machines.

Old Traction engine The really heavy work was undertaken by steam-powered traction engines, provided by a roving band of engineers which had, according to the farmer, turned up year after year. These engines drove the threshing machines which separated the wheat from the chaff. Two of them working at opposite ends of a field were used to drag huge multi-bladed reversible ploughshares through the ground using immense steel hawsers or, later on, the harrowing of the newly broken earth. These immense noisy engines, belching smoke and steam, and the flocks of seagulls following the plough was an impressive sight, Tom considered, as he laboured at the harvesting.

One of their regular early morning tasks was to milk the cows. This was something that Tom had not done before, and was distinctly reticent at first. Even so, he was surprised to find that he had a knack for it, and was usually able to finish milking by hand considerably quicker than the other two.

The work on the farm was long and hard, but almost entirely unstressed. Tom found himself relaxing more and more over the weeks, allowing the movements of his body and the consequent aches in his muscles to ease the mental strains he had barely realised he even had. The horrors of the War slowly faded to a distant memory, and were replaced by a distinctly pleasing feeling of productive work undertaken in the sunshine.

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