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Authors: Anne Bennett

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The Child Left Behind

BOOK: The Child Left Behind
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The Child Left Behind
Anne Bennett
HarperCollins Publishers (2012)
Tags:
Fiction

Synopsis

A moving family drama of one young woman's fight to survive, to find her long-lost relatives and to find a place to call home.

 Bridgette has been hurt many times in her life. Her early years were blighted by her spoilt brother; her marriage ruined by World War Two. Now her mother is dying. And then comes a deathbed revelation - somewhere Bridgette has another family and a father. Bridgette joins the war effort and shows her courage by aiding a British Agent whose life is in danger. But, as the war draws to a close, Bridgette is still full of questions about her past and is determined to find the answers. So she sets off for Birmingham not knowing what she will discover, but desperately hoping to find a place where she can finally belong.

The Child Left Behind
Anne Bennett

This book is dedicated to my sister in law
Kathy Flanagan, with love and in memory
of my brother Shaun, who tragically died
on 5th March 2009 RIP.

ONE

Finn Sullivan couldn’t understand his family. They had been aware of the rumblings of an unsettled Europe and so why were they surprised when Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914? When the news filtered through to them, via the postman, in their cottage in Donegal, Finn’s eldest brother, Tom, went to Buncrana, their nearest town, and bought a paper so that they could read all about it.

‘England has declared war on Germany because they invaded two other countries,’ he said as the family sat eating their midday meal.

‘Well, if that’s about the strength of it,’ his father, Thomas John, remarked, ‘it’s a wonder that no one can see the irony.’

‘What do you mean?’ Finn’s brother Joe asked.

‘Well, isn’t that what England has done to us?’ Thomas John said. ‘They invaded us, didn’t they? Who rules Ireland now?’

‘Not the Irish, that’s for sure,’ Biddy, Finn’s mother replied. ‘It’s England has us by the throat.’

‘Aye,’ Thomas John said, ‘and that means anything that involves England automatically involves us too.’

‘You mean the war?’ Finn asked.

‘Of course I mean the war, boy. What else?’

Finn coloured in anger. He hated being called ‘boy’ by his father now he was over eighteen.

‘So you think there will be call-up here?’ Joe asked.

‘Don’t see how we will get away without it,’ Thomas John said.

‘Maybe they are hoping for volunteers,’ Tom said. ‘After all, young Englishmen are volunteering in droves. The recruiting offices are hard-pressed to cope with the numbers who want to take a pop at the Germans. So the paper says, anyway.’

‘And why would Irish boys volunteer to fight for a country that has kept them down for years and years?’ Thomas John demanded.

‘The carrot that they are holding out might have something to do with that,’ Tom said.

‘What’s that?’ Joe asked. ‘Have to be some big bloody carrot, for I would not volunteer to lift one finger to help England.’

‘The paper claims that the government will grant Ireland independence if they get Irish support in this war.’

‘Let me see that,’ Thomas John said, and Tom passed the paper to his father, who scanned in quickly. ‘That’s what it says all right, and I don’t believe a word of it. To my knowledge, England has never kept any promise it has made to Ireland
and the Irish. For my money they can sink or swim on their own. We will keep our heads down and get on with our lives. It’s no good seeking trouble. In my experience it will come knocking on the door soon enough.’

Finn couldn’t believe that his father thought their dull, boring lives would go on totally unaffected by the war being fought just across a small stretch of water.

To Finn, war was new and exciting. He knew that in the army no one would look down on him because of his youth and no one there would call him ‘boy’.

He didn’t share these thoughts, but when his young sister Nuala came in from her nursemaid’s job at the Big House and was told the news later, she noted the look on Finn’s face and the zealous glint in his deep amber eyes, and she shivered and hoped that her impetuous brother wouldn’t do anything stupid.

War dominated the papers and Finn read everything he could about it. After the first weeks there were pictures of the first troops to go overseas waving out of train carriages, all happy and smiling. They would soon kick the Hun into touch, the papers said, and be home by Christmas with the job done. Finn looked at the pictures and ached to be there amongst them.

The following Saturday morning, he tripped getting up from the milking stool and spilled half a pail of milk over the straw on the floor of the
byre. Thomas John, suddenly angered by the mess, gave him such a powerful cuff across the side of his head that it knocked him to the floor, although he had never raised his hand to any of his children before.

No one helped Finn to his feet and he was glad, because he would have hated his brothers to see the tears he brushed away surreptitiously.

‘Don’t worry about it, Finn,’ Tom said quietly as they walked back to the house. ‘You know Daddy’s temper flashes up out of nothing and is gone in an instant. He will be over it in no time.’

But I won’t be, Finn thought, but he said nothing.

When he set out for Buncrana later that morning with Tom and his mother, he was as angry as ever. This anger was increased as Biddy took out her purse as they pulled into the town and, dropping some coins into Finn’s hand, told him to go to the harbour and buy some fish for their dinner.

Finn never got to the harbour, however, because as he turned down Main Street he heard a military band and saw the line of soldiers at the bottom of the hill. In front of this company was a tall officer of some sort, in full regalia, and so smart, even the buttons on his uniform sparkled in the early autumn sunshine. He held a stick in his left hand.

Suddenly the band behind him began to play and the officer led the soldiers up the hill to the marching music, the beat emphasised by the young
drummer boy at the front. The officer’s boots rung out on the cobbled street, the tattoo of the soldiers’ tramping feet completely in time.

Shoppers and shopkeepers alike had come to the doorways to watch the soldiers’ progress. As they drew nearer, though, Finn was unable to see the officer’s eyes, hidden as they were under the shiny peak of his cap, but his brown, curly moustache fairly bristled above the firm mouth in the slightly red and resolute face.

Finn felt excitement swell within him so that it filled his whole being. Tom, brought out of the Market Hall to see what was happening, saw the fervour filling his brother’s face and he was deeply afraid for him, but the press of people made it impossible for him to reach Finn.

And then the company stopped, and while the soldiers stood to attention the officer talked words that were like balm to Finn’s bruised and battered soul, words like ‘pride’, ‘integrity’ and ‘honour’ to serve in the British Army, whose aim was to rid the world of a nation of brutal aggressors. The army would crush the enemy who marched uninvited into other counties, harassing and persecuting innocent men, women and children, and they would deal swiftly and without mercy to any who opposed them.

Many, he said, had already answered the call and now he wished to see if young Irishmen had what it took to join this righteous fight. He wanted to see if they felt strongly enough for the poor
people of Belgium and France, their fellow human beings, who were prepared to fight to the death for freedom. Any who felt this way should step forward bravely.

At the time, freedom and liberty were what many Irish people longed for, and so those words burned brightly inside Finn. And if he were to join this company, like he saw more than a few were doing, then Ireland would gain her freedom too; wasn’t that the promise given?

His feet stepped forward almost of their own volition and he joined the gaggle of young Irish men milling around, unsure what to do, until the company sergeant came forward to take them in hand.

‘Finn, what in God’s name are you doing?’ Tom cried. He had broken through the crowd at last and now had his hand on his brother’s shoulder.

Finn shook him off roughly. ‘What’s it look like?’

‘You can’t do this.’

‘Oh yes I can,’ Finn declared. ‘You heard what the man said. They need our help and if enough Irishmen do this, Ireland will be free too.’

‘This is madness, Finn…’

‘Now then,’ said the sergeant beside them. ‘What’s this?’

‘I want to enlist,’ Finn said firmly. ‘My brother is trying to prevent me, but I am eighteen years old and the decision is my own.’

‘Well said,’ the soldier told Finn admiringly. He
turned to Tom. ‘As for you, fine sir, you should be ashamed at trying to turn your brother from what he sees as his duty. As he is eighteen he can decide these things for himself. It would look better if you were to join him rather than try to dissuade him.’

Finn shot Tom a look of triumph, then said rather disparagingly to the sergeant, ‘Tom can’t join just now, for he has an urgent errand to run for our mother.’ And he dropped the coins their mother had given him into Tom’s hand. ‘I’m going to be busy for a while, Tom, so you must get the fish for Mammy.’

He turned away before Tom could find the words to answer him and followed behind the sergeant to find out what he had to do to qualify to join the battles enacted on foreign fields not that far away.

If Finn were honest with himself, he had joined more for himself than for anyone else. He was fed up being pushed around, barked at to do this or that because, as the youngest boy, he was at the beck and call of everyone. Yet he couldn’t seem to do anything to anyone’s satisfaction and he never got a word of thanks.

Even if he expressed an opinion, it was often derided and mocked. His father in particular seemed have a real downer on him, and then to knock him from his feet that morning for spilling a bit of milk—it was not to be borne.

According to the army he was a man and could make a decision concerning his own future. He was pleased when he saw that his best friend, Christy Byrne, had enlisted too. They had been friends all through school and they were of like mind. Both lads wanted excitement and adventure and were sure that the army could provide it.

By tacit consent, Tom never told their mother what Finn had done. Later that day Finn looked at his family grouped around the table eating the fish Tom had bought in Buncrana. He loved his father, whose approval he had always sought and seldom got. He loved his elder brothers too. He saw Tom was nervous because he knew what Finn was going to say and he hated any sort of confrontation and unpleasantness. Joe, on the other hand, was eating his dinner with relish, totally unaware of the hammer-blow Finn was going to deliver, and Nuala was at work. He wondered how his mother would react. She was often so bad-tempered and unreasonable, about little or nothing, and sometimes no one but his father seemed able to please her.

Still, he knew he had to get the announcement over with. There was no point in beating about the bush. ‘I joined the army this morning,’ he said, as soon as there was a break in the conversation. ‘I enlisted,’ he emphasised, in case there was any doubt. ‘I’m in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, and I am to report in the morning.’

Biddy and Joe sat open-mouthed with shock,
but Thomas John leaped to his feet, his face puce with anger. ‘Are you, begod?’ he snapped, thumping his fist on the table. ‘Well, you are not. You will not do this. You are just a boy yet and I will accompany you tomorrow and get the matter overturned.’

‘This is the army, Daddy, not school,’ Finn said loftily. ‘And I am not a boy any more, not in the army’s eyes. I signed my name on the dotted line of my own free will and there is not a thing anyone can do about it.’

Thomas John sat back in his seat defeated, for he knew that Finn spoke the truth.

‘But why, Finn?’ Biddy cried out.

‘I am surprised that you can ask that, Mammy,’ Finn said, ‘for nothing I do pleases anyone here. And I began to ask myself why I was working my fingers to the bone anyway for a farm that one day will be Tom’s. I shall have nothing, not even a penny piece to bless myself with, because it seems to be against your religion to actually pay us anything like a wage.’

‘Finn,’ Biddy rapped out, ‘how dare you speak to me like that? Thomas John, haven’t you a word of censure for your son?’

Thomas John, however, said nothing. He knew he no longer had any jurisdiction over Finn, whom he loved so much, though he was unable to show it. Well, it was done now. The boy had stepped into a man’s world, only he had chosen a dangerous route and Thomas John knew he would worry about him constantly.

His brothers had a measure of sympathy for Finn, although Tom expressed concern for him.

‘Why worry?’ Finn said. ‘They say they fight in trenches, and a French or Belgian trench, I would imagine, is very like an Irish one, and those I am well familiar with. And if I pop off a few Germans along the way, so much the better.’

‘You don’t know the least thing about fighting.’

‘Neither do any of us,’ Finn said. ‘We’ll be trained, won’t we? And after that, I expect I’ll be as ready as the next man to have a go at the Hun. And there’s something else, Tom. They say the French girls are very willing. Know what I mean?’

‘Finn!’ Tom said, slightly shocked. ‘And how do you know, anyway? Just how many French girls do you know?’

‘God, Tom, it’s a well-known fact,’ Finn said airily. ‘Don’t get on your high horse either. A fighting man has to have some distraction.’ And Finn laughed at the expression on Tom’s face.

Much as he could reassure his brothers, though, Finn dreaded breaking the news to Nuala when she came home. He had missed her when she began work, more than he had expected and more than he would admit. She had always listened to him and often championed him. She did the same that day in front of her parents, but later she sought Fin out in the barn.

‘You will be careful, won’t you, Finn?’

‘Of course I will. I have got a whole lot of living to do yet.’

‘Will you write to me? Let me know that you’re all right?’

‘I will,’ Finn promised. ‘And I will address it to you at the Big House. That way I can write what I want, without worrying about Mammy possibly steaming it open.’

Nuala nodded. But she said plaintively, ‘Finn, I don’t think I could bear it if anything happened to you.’

Finn looked into his sister’s eyes, which were like two pools of sadness. He took hold of her shoulders. ‘Nothing will happen me. I will come back safe and sound, never fear. And it’s nice to have someone even partially on my side as I prepare to dip my toe into alien waters.’

‘I’ll always be on your side, Finn,’ Nuala said. ‘You know that.’ She put her arms around her brother’s neck and kissed his ruddy cheek. ‘Good luck, Finn and God bless you.’

The next morning, Tom told his father he was going with Finn as far as Buncrana. When Thomas John opened his mouth as if to argue the point Tom said, ‘He is not going in on his own as if he has no people belonging to him that love him and will miss him every minute till he returns.’

BOOK: The Child Left Behind
13.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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