The sapphire dragonfly darted between the reeds. A boy chased it until the insect landed on a slender green stem. The net descended. From this new perspective, Ernie could see there was a man hiding in the grass beyond the weir. He was probably poaching. Ernie looked once more at the insect then released it, before back tracking. He avoided the guards and skirted the landing craft before climbing onto the railway and walking towards home.
Ernie saw the man near the weir. He was camouflaged and surveying the far bank through binoculars, where the Higgins Boats were lined up. Ernie walked back towards the village until he heard the tracks wail with the approaching train. A column of smoke emerged above the trees, so he stood back and waited. The black engine roared into view. Steam hissed from the pistons and the noise and smell of soot and sulphur was overpowering. Ernie stretched his two fingers wide in emulation of Churchill’s victory sign.
Clarence the engineer, cast out his fag, shook his fist and returned to his work stoking the boiler. The four carriages and guard van rattled past. Ernie had to wait at the level crossing as a convoy of trucks descended towards the packhorse bridge, before literally parking in front of the ruins of Kirkham Priory. There was going to be a military exercise nearby.
Ernie took off his cap and ran home. “Quickly get washed, we’ll eat as soon as Clarence gets here.”
“Righto! Mum.” Ernie flew out of the kitchen, stopping to take off his shoes before taking the stairs two at a time. Tea was a sombre affair, too much gravy chasing too little meat. Clarence poured Ernie a little jubilee stout and the boy smiled as he licked the white froth from the top.
“Here, off you go and stick these in your scrap book,” Clarence held out a wadge of cigarette cards, “and mind you don’t go practising that Churchill salute too often!”
Ernie pasted in the Jane stories whilst the adults drank tea and smoked round the kitchen table. “There must be something important going off - they’ve asked us to be extra vigilant,” Clarence said. “Do you think Mr. Churchill will visit the military exercise?”
The adults turned to face him. Neither smiled. “You know what careless talk costs?” Ernie nodded. “Still, Clarence added with a smile, “it would put Kirkham on the map. Give us all a bit of a boost, eh love?” It was the first time Ernie had heard the term love used since his dad had left home. It sounded nice. “I’m going out to feed the hens,” Ernie said.
The twilight sky reverberated with the sound of aircraft. He looked up to see if he could make them out. He fed the hens, secured the latch and checked round the fence. Clarence came out a little later. “Busy,” he said, looking up. He stood in silence for a while then cleared his throat. “I wanted to talk to you about your mum. Your dad’s been gone three years and well,” he shifted uncomfortably, “and well I’d like to marry her.”
Ernie looked at Clarence and smiled, “mum and I have talked about something like this happening.” “I’ll look after you both, you don’t need to worry.” Clarence stopped and listened to the train. He checked his watch, glad of the diversion. “The 8.15.” He put the watch away. “What were you doing at the side of the tracks today?” “Watching a German spy,” Ernie confessed, “he was finding himself a good position overlooking the priory.” “A poacher more like,” Clarence said. “Are binoculars good for that?” asked Ernie.
Clarence thought about events. “Maybe someone looking out for lads spying on the 11th Armoured Division. When I’m off-duty tomorrow afternoon, I think we’ll take a proper look.” “No, I’ve a better idea,” Ernie said, “the 10.10 slows right down as it comes to the crossing. If I see anything I’ll be able to shout a message to you.”
Clarence touched the side of his nose. He had given Ernie had given tacit approval to miss morning lessons at school. It was a miserable day. Fine drizzle made the walk from the farm tedious. Ernie trudged through the trees above the road. Even before he got to Kirkham Priory he could hear the noise of vehicles. The landing craft were steered into the river at full throttle, sending jets of water into the air, but there was no sign of anyone hiding by the weir.
It was 9.30am, Ernie sat in the rain and felt miserable. He watched the landing craft repeat their exercise and trucks park up on the road. A highly-polished car drove across the bridge and pulled up by the gateway. Still he waited, feeling cold and warming his hands under his armpits. If only he were in school studying algebra! That’s when he saw the spy. He was watching through his binoculars from a nearby copse only it wasn’t binoculars Ernie glimpsed but a rifle sight. Ernie pressed himself low to the ground and carefully pushed his way through the undergrowth towards the level crossing. He heard the 10.10 approaching the valley with Clarence onboard. He moved more quickly, darting between trees before descending to the track and waiting.
Ernie looked across the packhorse bridge and saw the car. It had a style familiar from newsreels. Realising this, Ernie vaulted the level crossing and ran. He was stopped by two sentries at the priory gatehouse. “Sorry lad, no entry!” Ernie walked round the Humber car and remembered only top brass got one of these. “But I must see who’s in charge. There’s a sniper hiding in the trees.” “Is this some joke? These are top secret manoeuvres,” the sentry asked looking a little confused. Clarence jumped down form the train and shouted. Ernie made a break across the lawned area beyond the gate, and almost collided with a portly man in a long coat and homburg hat. “Are you in charge Mr?” Ernie had barely said the words when the man turned and removed a cigar from his lips. Ernie realised his identity. “Mr. Churchill, there’s a sniper in the trees and I’m sure he’s going to try and shoot you.”
“There are many men in Nazi Germany who would like to do that,” Mr. Churchill said. He smiled and calmly resumed his smoking.
The officer next to him was more agitated. “Where?” he asked. “In those trees,” Ernie replied just as light caught the gunsight. Everything happened at once. Mr. Churchill was moved to the safety of a ruined wall covered in climbing nets. There was a barked order and a single shot. “I hope that was one of ours. I’m not as lithe as I used to be,” Mr. Churchill said.
“Colonel, have you got an important visitor here?” Clarence leaned against the wall and caught his breath. “Whom did you have in mind? His Majesty?” The prime minister asked. “No, you sir.” Clarence replied a little flustered. They watched as soldiers converged on the woods and eventually emerged with the sniper.
“It seems I owe you a debt of gratitude young man.” Mr. Churchill took a fresh cigar from a leather case and placed it in the Ernie’s shirt pocket. “Save it for when you reach twenty-one.”
Clarence took a deep breath. “Well, you’ve done your work, Ernie, so it’s back to school lad. Even heroes need a good education!” He ruffled Ernie’s hair and the lad beamed and gave the famous Churchill salute.
The prime minister smiled and returned the gesture. “Now let’s get on with this supposedly top-secret work.” The embarrassed officer took the lead as the party marched towards the River Derwent where the landing craft were being put through their paces. Clarence caught up with Ernie by the road.
“We did it!” Ernie said. “Yes, but it looks like there’s something being planned which will take a lot more bravery and sacrifice than we two can muster.”
They walked over the bridge and Clarence climbed back onto the engine. It whistled twice and chugged along the track, round the bend in the river where landing craft were preparing for something big.