Today's Reading

"Look, everyone's on edge these days. They're saying the threat of an invasion by Germany is real. And we live on the outskirts of London, so that puts us at risk for bombing. The government wants to protect the children. That's you!"

"I'm not a child," he snorted, "and I don't mind getting out of the house. It's so depressing these days, with Mum afraid, and the bomb shelters, blackouts, and talk of air raids. You know about the Operation Pied Piper thing. I'd like to go to the countryside where there's more space. My school mates feel the same."

"Are any of them leaving?"

"Not yet. Billy might soon."

"Where will he go?"

"They haven't told him. Everything's a secret. At school they gave us all a sign-up letter to bring home today. That's what got Mum going again. The envelope said 'From His Majesty's Government. Urgent.' She broke down and cried buckets."

"You didn't tell her you want to leave home, did you?"

He shook his head. "Not yet."

Kate nodded and gave him a feeble smile.

"That's best. We need to let things settle down for a bit. I'd think Dad's not against the idea of evacuation, and Mum may come around in time."

"You have all the luck. You can make your own decisions. Don't you want to get out of here?"

Kate grimaced. "Come on, Ryan, how can I justify both of us taking off?" Especially now Clare's married, she thought. "Mum wants to keep the family together," she continued. "If you go, I stay."

"But you're twenty! You don't have to live at home anymore. If I were you, I wouldn't hang around for a minute. I'm going to leave school next year anyway."

"Fine, if that's your decision. No one's going to stop you from growing up." She mussed his hair again. "And I'll miss you, too, little brother, when you do."

He grinned. "Aw. Let's arm wrestle."

They made right angles of their arms on the bed and clasped hands. Kate presented her stronger left arm. For a few minutes they swayed one way, then the other, until Ryan tightened his grip and slammed his sister's forearm onto the mattress.

"You're strong, for a girl," he said.

"You forget I'm a swimmer, or used to be."

"Hmm. Like Mum. Hard to imagine now."

It was hard to imagine. At his age, the former Mary Grace O'Donnell had been a competitive swimmer. She learned to swim in the sea at home in Sussex, in Selsey, on the South coast, fearlessly plunging into the water at all times of the year. She had taught Kate early during summer visits, but by the time Ryan was old enough the family no longer spent holidays there, or anywhere. Things changed for the family, and Mary Grace, no longer challenging herself to confront white-crested waves, lost her powerful arm muscles. How sad, Kate thought, that her mother's now softer body did nothing to soothe her constantly skittish mind.

"I wish I could swim as well as you," Ryan said. "Maybe you can coach me."

Kate inhaled sharply. He doesn't remember. Thank God for that.

But she would never forget. Because of her, he had almost lost his life. She was only ten years old: how could she have taken her three-year-old brother on the rowing boat, without permission? A sudden storm came up, rocking the vessel out of control. She heard herself scream as she lost an oar, then clutched Ryan in the terrifying moments as the boat capsized, turning everything upside down. Mustering her strength, she scrambled to employ the lifeguard's manoeuvre for rescuing non-swimmers that her mother had taught her, and she held her little brother's head to her chest as she swam on her back, frog-kicking her legs, whisking him to safety. Mary Grace, watching helplessly from the bluff, had never forgiven Kate for her reckless behaviour and, to avoid traumatising Ryan, told Kate never to talk to him about it. Kate would live with her guilt forever. She had often been tempted to talk to Ryan about the incident to find out if fear prevented him from learning to swim well when he was younger. But she respected her mother's wishes. It was one of many instances where Mary Grace had banned discussion of unpleasant things, further constraining their already tenuous relationship.
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