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Little Exiles

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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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      Little Exiles
Robert Dinsdale

A stunning novel set in the wake of the Second World War, Little Exiles tells the extraordinary story of the forced child migration between Britain and Australia that took place after World War II and how this flight from home shaped the identity of a generation of children.Jon Heather, proud to be nearly nine, knows that Christmas is a time for family. But one evening in December 1948, no longer able to cope, his mother leaves him by a door, above which the legend reads Chapeltown Boys’ Home of the Children’s Crusade. Several weeks later, still certain his mother will come back, Jon finds himself on a boat set for Australia. Promised paradise, Jon soon realizes the reality of the vast Australian outback is very different; its burnished desert becoming the backdrop for a strict regime of hard work and discipline.So begins an odyssey that will last a lifetime, as Jon Heather and his group of unlikely friends battle to make their way back home.

LITTLE EXILES

ROBERT DINSDALE

It is proposed that the Commonwealth seek out in Britain, by whatever means necessary, at least 17,000 children a year suitable and available for immediate migration to Australia.

Arthur Calwell, Australian Minister for Immigration, 1949

Table of Contents

Title Page (#u1fc56a03-2FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)

Epigraph (#u1fc56a03-3FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)

Book One: The Children’s Crusade (#u1fc56a03-5FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)

Chapter I (#u1fc56a03-6FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)

Chapter II (#u1fc56a03-7FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)

Chapter III (#u1fc56a03-8FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)

Chapter IV (#u1fc56a03-9FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)

Chapter V (#u1fc56a03-10FF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)

Chapter VI (#u1fc56a03-11FF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)

Chapter VII (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter VIII (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter IX (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter X (#litres_trial_promo)

Book Two: The Stolen Generation (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter XI (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter XII (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter XIII (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter XIV (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter XV (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter XVI (#litres_trial_promo)

Book Three: The Three Childsnatchers (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter XVII (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter XVIII (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter XIX (#litres_trial_promo)

Acknowledgements (#litres_trial_promo)

About the Author (#litres_trial_promo)

Copyright (#litres_trial_promo)

About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo)

BOOK ONE

I

The boy standing vigil at the end of the lane, a Christmas lantern in his hand, still believes his father is coming home. Christmas, he has been taught, is a time of family, when errant sisters might come back to the fold, when black-sheep brothers might go carolling with the mothers they say they despise. He is eight years old, proud to be nearly nine, and he still recalls last Christmas, how he stood at the end of the lane, tracking every approaching motor car until the snow drifts climbed above his boots. It had taken his mother to prise him away. She had hoisted him up and hauled him back to the terrace, where his sisters were ready to welcome him with hot mulled wine – which was terrible to taste, but at least made him feel warm and fuzzy inside. He had gone to bed that night in squalls of tears, but risen the next morning to presents under the tree – a book he had pined for, The Secret of Grey Walls, a cap gun he had been told, time and again, not to expect – and it was not until the evening that he realized he had not thought of his vigil all through the day. This year, he has resolved, he will not be so cowardly. He has his cap gun tucked into his belt, he has brought mulled wine in a flask, and he has wrapped up warm. Christmas is a time of family and a time of miracles. The logic will not be denied.

It is 1948 and, though he has never once seen his father, he knows that he is coming home.

He was born in the middle month of winter in the year of 1940. He has twin sisters older than him by eleven years, and they are the ones who attended his birth, straining with his mother in the backroom of the terrace where they live. Of his earliest years, he remembers little. His mother kneads dough in a bakery before dawn and cleans houses in the afternoon, and it is his sisters he remembers making him breakfast and dressing him every morning. He grows up, quickly, between one end of the street and another. A shop mistress smiles when he enters her shop, secretly palming barley sugars into his hands. A neighbour invites him to play with her daughter in a backyard on the other side of the road. So lost is he in this world of women that it is not until he sees two brothers tumbling over one another further down the terrace that he discovers it is cowboys and Indians he longs to be playing, not with dolls’ houses and ponies chipped out of wood.

At night, there are sirens. If the sirens sing before dusk, they hurry together to a shelter buried in the grounds of a house at the end of the terrace. Outside, the world quakes. Through a speak-hole sliding back and forth, the boy can see cascading oranges and reds, great reefs of smoke. He hears whispers of factories on fire and great barrage balloons strung through the skies.

If the sirens do not sing until after dark, they remain in their house, crammed into a cubbyhole beneath the stairs. Sometimes the building shakes. At first, the boy does not understand the fear – but, in the tomb under the stairs, terror is a disease that spreads quickly. One night, crammed into that cubbyhole, his mother begins to sob. The boy believes he can hear his own name in the tears: Jon, Jon, Jon, the word swallowed by the song of the siren.

He is five years old when he begins to ask about his father. It is 1946 and there are suddenly strange men in the streets, great companies of them descending on the taprooms and alehouses. Jon watches them from his window at the top of the terrace. He notices, for the first time, that his mother stands alone at the end of their lane each evening, watching these strange intruders march back from the ruins of warehouses and factories they are rebuilding. He wonders if she too is bewildered at the invasion of their city, but his sisters smile oddly when he dares to ask the question. They tell him she is waiting. Nothing more, and nothing less. She is waiting for their father to return.

They bring out photographs. A man with wild black hair glowering into the camera. A man with two young girls, one sitting on either knee. His name, they tell him, is Jonah, though he too is always known as Jon. It thrills the little boy to think that he, one day, might be like the man in the pictures.

At the back end of summer, a man in uniform arrives at the house next door, and the little girl with whom Jon is sometimes invited to play is introduced, for the first time, to her father. Jon watches as the man pauses, the little girl framed in the doorway, and crouches to urge her forward. At first she freezes, her mother looming behind. Then the man vaults the brick wall, scooping up the child and embracing her mother in one swift movement. In some of the other doorways along the redbrick row, other women have appeared to witness the reunion. One of them, Jon notes, begins to applaud.

There are stories to be learned. His father was a hero fighting a crusade on the other side of the world. His father was in the jungle teaching the natives to fly Spitfires. There are other stories as well – his father once worked at a lathe; his father was arrested in a backroom brawl – but these are not the tales with which the boy obsesses. Though the boy has never once met the man, he wants to grow up and be just like him, out in the world on grand adventures, with friends and family at home thrilling for news of his exploits.

He begs his mother every evening to tell some other tale of his father’s derring-do. Sometimes he is swooped away by his sisters – but, sometimes, he is wily enough to trap his mother in the question. One night, after his sisters have put him to bed, his mother returns from an evening sweeping some factory floor. He waits for her to climb, wearily, to her bed – and then he pounces. He tells her he has had a nightmare, that he dreamed of his father lost, somewhere at sea, fending off sharks with the butt of a broken oar.

It is nonsense, she tells him. His father cannot swim; he would never have got himself into such trouble in the first place.

The boy does not notice, at first, when the stories stop being told. He supposes it may have been earlier than he first thought, for he was surely telling himself the stories as well, lining up his lead soldiers and imagining them his father’s company, or building matchstick planes and putting his father in the cockpit. In his games, his father makes his way home from the jungles on the other side of the world, but is forever sidetracked by helpless villagers, or orphaned children searching for someone to protect them. Each time he goes to sleep he constructs a new fantasy, some other adventure his father cannot resist as, kingdom by kingdom, he picks his way back to English shores.

In a journal he writes stories about his father. At first, they are only short passages, idle thoughts: his father parachuting from a plane; his father in a coracle, tumbling helplessly over a wild waterfall. He is beginning to compose a longer story – his father crossing Siberia by sled with Nazis on his trail – when his mother discovers him at work, hidden under the bedcovers. He does not understand why she starts crying. She takes the journal away and forbids him from writing such stories ever again.

He is not permitted, any longer, to mention his father.

The winter of 1949 lingers long into the following year, but lasts longer still for Jon’s mother. She is at home more and more often, lying in bed until hours after dawn, so that soon it is Jon’s sisters who cook breakfast and scrub his laundry and take the ration books out to gather the week’s groceries. On Christmas Day, she does not get out of bed at all. They open presents gathered around her bed, and bring a small tree into the room that Jon has decorated with stray strands of tinsel. Early in the New Year, he finds one of his sisters sobbing quietly to the other in the scullery. He listens at the door, but they are well versed in his ways and shoo him away.

Three nights later, Jon piles his few belongings – clothes and bedspread and a bundle of treasured books – into a suitcase and follows his sisters to a neighbour’s house. He spends the night on the floor of the living room, where the deep rug before the fire is a more comfortable bed than he has ever known. He wonders, absently, why their mother has not joined them in the adventure, but is promised he will see her again soon.

Three nights later, his mother arrives on the doorstep and takes dinner with them: a broth made of onions, thickened with potato. She has brought hard bread from her bakery, but its appearance on the table causes deep and troubled sighs. His mother has stolen it, Jon understands – but a little theft does not damage its taste.

She comes intermittently after that. One Sunday, she strolls with him along the canal. Another time, she and his sisters go for a long walk – and only his sisters return. Easter comes, and she brings him a new book, wrapped in brown paper and tied up with string. He has been waiting for Mystery at Witchend longer than he remembers, and is so eager to sink into its pages that he does not realize, until it is already dark, that his mother stayed only a few minutes that day.

By the break of December in the year of 1950, he has not seen his mother in four long months. Christmas approaches quickly, and he is determined it will not be like the last. He makes plans to go to the old spot, to keep his customary vigil – but, just as he is preparing to leave, a familiar voice rises in the hallway below. Thundering down the stairs, he sees his mother standing in the door.

He does not run to her, though he knows it is what she expects. At the command of his sister, an adult now, he approaches gingerly.

His mother crouches and tells him that she loves him. He accepts the words, because he has always accepted them, has never for a second doubted she does not think of him as often as he thinks of her. She tells him to put his best coat on, to polish up his boots and gather together the books she knows he loves. At last, the boy understands: Christmas is a time of family and a time of miracles.

They are going back home.

Through the redbricks, piled high in frost and ice, he trails after his mother. They wander the old street, but they do not go back to the old house. They march on, instead, into thoroughfares Jon has never known, strange, foreign streets where black men stand out in the snow. They come to a broad thoroughfare from where he can see the lands beyond the edge of the city. There has been snow on the dales for many days now, and they loom luminescent in the night. A silvery moon hangs above, shipwrecked in banks of white cloud.
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