“How did I get here Nanny?” The old lady looked down at her granddaughter. The seriousness of the little girl’s expression indicated that she wasn’t about to be distracted by tales of cabbage patches or visits to the ‘good doctor’.

      “Well…” she said, putting the half finished cardigan down and pushing her glasses back up into her white hair, “It’s a long story. I’m not sure little girl’s have the time, or the patience, to listen to long stories.”

      “Oh, I do Nanny, I do.” The girl’s loose black bunches quivered in expectation.

      “Hmmm. Sit down then and let me think about where to start.”

      “Start at the beginning, of course.”

      “Oh, I couldn’t start at the beginning. That would mean such a long story. I wouldn’t be finished if I was to tell it from now until Christmas. No, I’ll start with your granddad.

      “You’re sure this is all about how I got here?”

      “Quite sure. Now a long time ago, back in the mists of time,” the old lady chuckled, “your granddad was born. But he wasn’t like the majority of other babies. Oh, no. When the midwife helped granddad out of his mummy’s tummy he was quite, quite blue.”

      “Blue?” The little girl was completely incredulous. She’d seen her grandfather a few minutes ago tending to his potatoes and there wasn’t a hint of blueness about him.

      “Yes, blue. As blue as a vein in a lump of stilton. The midwife cleaned him up, rubbed his arms and legs and said to his mummy that she was awfully sorry, but it appeared that her son was dead.”

      “Dead? That’s very bad.”

      “Yes, it was bad. But luckily, a young doctor was downstairs visiting granddad’s father – who was a police inspector and who, from time to time, called upon the assistance of a doctor to help him with a case.”

      “Like Sherlock Homes?”

      “Just like Sherlock Homes. Anyway, the midwife rushed the baby down to see him and, after a quick blow in his mouth and a few firm slaps on the back, his colour went from blue to the lovely shade of pink he is now.”

      “Then what happened, Nanny?”

      “Well, you have to imagine me as a little girl a bit older than yourself.”

      “But what about granddad?”

      “We’ll come back to him in a while. So, imagine me wearing a big warm coat, crumpled stockings that would always fall down and a pair of battered old sandals. I, and the rest of my class, were waiting to go on the biggest adventure of our lives. A very wicked man, far away in another country, had decided to drop bombs on our homes and we were being sent away to a safe place called Canada.

      Now our story switches to a blustery night somewhere in the middle of the north Atlantic sea. Beneath the waves, in a submarine called the U48…”

      “That’s not a very clever name.”

      “No, you’re right, it’s not. But its captain did have one. Heinrich Bleichrodt was his name and he stood next to his periscope finishing off his second cup of cocoa of the evening. Pressing his face down to the worn rubber of the eyepiece he looked out over the choppy seas. There, in the distance, in a long line right before him, was a convoy of ships running from England to Canada. He took a sip of his hot chocolate and, turning to his helmsman (the man who steers the ship) said, “Target bearing oh-six-oh,” and “Range 275 meters,” in exactly the same way that all the submarine captains do in the movies. Then with a “Los torpedoes!” two huge underwater bombs whirred off towards the boats like a couple of clockwork fish. Now, of all the gathered ships that night, one was called City of Benares and it was carrying 90 children to over the sea to Canada.”

      “Nanny! You weren’t on it were you?”

      “Heavens no, nothing so exciting. But, as a result of it sinking that awful night, the whole north Atlantic evacuation program was called off and I stayed at home in Beccles. Which is where I met your grandfather.”

      “Was the captain of the submarine a bad man? A very bad man?”

      “What do you think, my dear?” The little girl shrugged, slightly awkward with the space her grandmother had left in the telling of her story.

      “I don’t think anyone who drinks cocoa can be all that bad.”

      “Too true. People said, a long time afterwards, that he didn’t realise that there were children on that ship, that he’d been told only to sink whatever he could. I tend to believe him.” The old lady paused for a second and stared into the middle distance, obviously lost deep in thought.

      “So, where were we? Ah, yes down a coal mine with your granddad.”

      “What about you?”

      “Let’s leave me standing on Liverpool dock in my crumpled stockings waiting to see if I’ll be sent abroad. Now, your granddad was too young to go and fight against those naughty bomb dropping men far away. And so, the people in charge at the time…”

      “Sent him down a mine.”

      “Just so. The country needed coal to melt metal to make all kinds of things and those too young or too old to go and fight we called up to go and dig it out of the ground. Now one day. One day… Well, you don’t really have day or night down in a coalmine, but the time on the surface was 3.15pm. Anyway, there was your granddad trudging back towards the coal face when something terrible happened.”


      “Old Man Charlton gave him one of his jobs. Which might not sound too bad unless you knew what a work-shy old so-and-so that man was. What he asked granddad to do was replace some rotting pit props with new ones. They were wet, they were unsafe and as he pulled the first of them free, guess what?” The wide eyed girl quickly shrugged.

      “The whole arch gave way and a huge timber fell right on top of him and pinned his leg to the ground, just like an insect in a museum.”

      “He’s doesn’t have a lot of luck, does he Nanny?”

      “Ah, my dear, that’s where you’re wrong. If it hadn’t been for the big bit of wood that was sticking through his leg, he would have been squashed flat. As it was the broken prop wedged against the wall behind him and made a little space for him to lie in until his friends could rescue him.”

      “Did it take a long time to dig him out Nanny?”

      “Long enough for him still to be afraid of the dark even today.” The little girl didn’t think this sounded so silly. She was six, and she didn’t think she’d ever get used to waking up in a pitch black bedroom. She looked up at her grandmother anticipating the next installment in the tale.

      “Events jump a few years forward now, to 1948. I was an auxiliary nurse up at Gaulstone hospital (which I always thought was an terrible name for a place and especially a hospital – did you know there’s actually a medical condition called ‘gall stones’?).” The little girl shook her head but didn’t push the matter. Gall stones sounded horrible and the last thing she wanted was a description about how you caught them and what they did to you.

      “There I was then, out of my small wrinkled stockings and into some big ones that actually stayed up. And, if I do say so myself, made my 20-year-old legs look rather shapely as far the doctors were concerned.”

      “You were 20? But you said things only jumped forward a ‘few’ years.”

      “Well, early years always seem like a few when you get this far away from them. So then, that was the year that the World Health Organisation started its monitoring of Influenza (the flu to me and you). Back then, it was a lot nastier than the majority of colds people catch today. Horrible, nasty, life-threatening thing, even for healthy young men freshly back from working down the coal mines up north. Healthy young men called Herbert in fact.”

      “You mean granddad, don’t you?”

      “Yes, clever girl. Poor old granddad went down with one of the worse cases of the flu I’d ever encountered. Sweats, delirium…”


      “Waking dreams, nightmares. He was in such a poor way but, and this may sound strange, rather dashing all the same. And so, I started looking after him, tending him round the clock even when it wasn’t my shift. I explained my attentions away to the other nurses saying I was only doing the ‘monitoring’ the World Health Organisation had asked us to do. But deep down inside, I knew I’d taken a shine to him.

      There was one awful night when he did get very sick indeed. We had to pack him with ice to keep his temperature down and he remained unconscious throughout the whole two days of his fever. Luckily, I’d already booked the time off and was able to stay with him during the worst of it. Late at night, when granddad was deep down inside his deepest sleep, I leant across the bed and whispered, ‘Mr Brown, I should very much like to get to know you. So don’t you dare die on me, you hear?’ And, to this day, I’m convinced somewhere – in that deep, deep sleep – he heard me. Lord know he’s not made a habit of it since, though…”

      “Of what?”

      “Of listening to me.”

      “But, he did have some good luck in the end.”

      “If you’re referring to his meeting me then, yes, the best of luck. If you’re referring to him getting better, then luck had very little to do with it. You’d be surprised what the attentions of a good nurse can achieve.”

      “What happened after that?”

      “Then? Well… then we both stopped living such risky lives, although there were a few more dicey moments to overcome. Thankfully, though, none of them involved your mother.”

      “My mummy?”

      “Yes, granddad and I got married. We settled down and had your mother and, a few years later, your uncle. And that, my dear, is as far as my part of the story goes. If you want to find out what happened in the next episode, you’ll have to talk to your mummy. You see, it became her story then. And then, when you were born, it became yours. That’s the way it goes.”

      The little girl puzzled over the fact that the story about where she came from involved more than one narrator, then said, “I don’t think mummy has the time to tell stories quite like yours, nanny.”

      “Not right now, maybe. But one day she will. Right then, what would you like to do next? Would you like to play a game of something?”

      “Yes please.”

      “What do you fancy?”


      “Rummy? Are you sure? How about backgammon. Has anyone taught you how to play backgammon as yet?”

      “No, I don’t think so.”

      “Oh, you’ll love it. It’s a cracking combination of luck and skill.” And with that the old lady smiled, winked at the little girl and put her knitting back in its bag so she could go and search for her backgammon case.