The farmer taught her to avoid blisters by spitting on her hands.
He looked at her in that sideways manner of his, and she noticed that his nose had veins just visible under the skin, forked and meandering, like tiny rivulets marked on a map. She knew that she should not stare at his nose; she had been taught by her aunt that she should never pay attention to any obvious physical feature. People come in different shapes and sizes, Annie said. Don’t make it awkward for them.
She wrested her gaze away from the farmer’s nose and looked into his eyes, wondering what age he was. She was nineteen – twenty in a couple of months – and it was still difficult for her to judge the age of those even a decade older than she was. He was in his late fifties somewhere, she thought. His eyes, she noticed, were grey, and clear too; they were those of one who was used to the open, to wind and weather, to open spaces. They were a countryman’s eyes, accustomed to looking at things that were really important: sheep, cattle, the ploughed earth – things that a farmer saw, and understood. She spotted these things; she may not have had much formal education – she had left school at sixteen, as many did – but she saw things that other people failed to see, and she understood them. They said at school that she could have gone much further, as she was of above average intelligence – a “thoughtful, articulate girl”, the principal had written; “the sort of talent this country wastes so carelessly”. University, even, had been a possibility, but there had not been much money and she had found the thought of going away was daunting.
“Spit on your hands, Val,” he said. “Like this, see.”
He spat on his right hand first, then the left. “Then you rub them together,” he continued. “Not too much, mind, or it won’t work. You try now. You show me.”
She smiled, and looked down at her hands. They were already dirty from salvaging hessian sacks in one of the barns to stack them ready for use – nothing was wasted these days, old string, rusty nails, scraps of wood – everything could be put to some use. Her hands were still soft, though, and he had noticed.
“You don’t mind if I call you Val?” asked the farmer. “It would be a bit of a mouthful to call you Miss . . .” He trailed away, looking momentarily embarrassed.
“Eliot. Miss Eliot. No, Val is who I am.”
“And you should call me Archie. Full name Archibald, of course, but nobody ever used that – apart from my mother. Mothers usually call their sons by their proper names. I knew a lad at school who was called Skinny by everybody – he was that thin – but his mother always called him Terence.” He shook his head at the memory. “Not much of a name, Terence, if you ask me. A town name, I’d say.”
She laughed. “My aunt sometimes calls me Valerie. Same thing, I suppose.” She paused. “So I should spit on my hands when I’m picking things?”
“Yes, if you like. But mostly when you’re using a spade. The handle can be hard on your hands. I’ve seen young lads get blisters the size of a half-crown from spades.”
She promised to be careful, and to remember to do as he said. There was so much to learn: she been on the farm for only three days, and she had already learned eighteen things. She had written them all down in her land girl’s diary, each one numbered, with its explanation written in pencil. Eighteen new pieces of information as to how to work the land; about how to be a farmer.
They had been standing in the yard, directly outside the larger of the two barns. Now the farmer suggested that if she came to the farmhouse kitchen he would make tea for both of them. She should take a break every four hours, he said. “Take fifteen minutes to get your breath back. It’s more efficient that way – at least in the long run. A tired man . . . sorry, a tired girl too . . . gets less done than one who’s well rested. I’ve always said that. I told young Phil that. He was a one for working all hours, but I told him not to.”
He had mentioned Phil on the first day. He had explained that he was his nephew, the son of his older brother, who had helped him on the farm for almost a year, and had gone off to join the army two months earlier. “He saw through Hitler,” he said. “Even when he was a nipper, fourteen, fifteen, he said ‘Hitler’s trouble’. And he was right, wasn’t he? Spot on. Look where we are now. Hitler sitting in all those countries – France, Holland, them places – and if it hadn’t been for the Yanks coming in we’d be on our knees, begging for mercy.”
He had welcomed her, because with Phil gone he would not have been able to cope. The farm was not a large one – eighty five acres – but it was intensively cultivated and it would have been too much for him to manage by himself. That was where the Women’s Land Army came in: they said they would send him one of their land girls, and they sent her, riding on her bicycle from the village six miles away. She lived there with her aunt Annie, the local postmistress. Archie knew Annie slightly, as the local postmistress was friendly with everybody. He must have seen Val about the place too, but had not noticed her. He did not pay much attention to women and girls; he was a shy man, who had never married, and tended to feel awkward in female company. But he liked Val; on that very first day he had decided that here was a well brought up girl who knew her manners and was not going to be afraid of hard work. She would earn her two pounds four shillings a week, he thought. It was a decent wage if you did not have to give up some of it for board and lodging – and he assumed she did not have to pay Annie for lodging, although she probably contributed something for her food. She might even be able to save – if she stayed the course, which he had a feeling she would do. If they had sent him somebody from town, it could be a very different story. He knew somebody who had been allocated a land girl from London and she barely knew that milk came from cows; there was no work in her, he had been told, just complaints about mud and requests for time off every other day. He would not have a girl like that about the place; he would refuse, and they couldn’t make him take her, even with their powers to tell you to do this and that, as if the Ministry of Agriculture knew how to run a farm.
“So, Val Eliot,” he said as he poured her mug of tea. “Tell me a little more about yourself. Where are your mum and dad?” He immediately regretted the question. He should not have asked her that, and he became flustered.
He was relieved that she did not seem upset. “My dad went to Australia,” she said. “That was twelve years ago, when I was seven. My mum died five years ago.”
Well, at least she was not an orphan; that would have made his question all the more tactless. “I’m sorry about your mum,” he said.
“My aunt is her sister,” said Val. “She took me in. My dad sends money, sometimes, or did until last year, when I turned eighteen. But my aunt was all right with that. She says that my dad isn’t a bad man; he’s just not the sort to settle down. He moved around in Australia. He’s a roofer. They have a lot of tin roofs out there.” She paused. “You want to see a photograph of them? Of my mum and dad?”
He nodded, and she crossed the kitchen to the peg where he had told her she could hang the jacket and scarf she wore when cycling from the village. She took out a purse, and extracted from it a small photograph. The photograph had been pasted onto card for protection.
“That’s them,” she said. “Before he left for Australia.”
He looked at the picture of the man and woman standing outside a shop front. They were holding hands, dressed in their Sunday best, the man with one of those stiff, uncomfortable collars, the woman with a blouse that buttoned up to her neck.
“She has a kind face,” he said. “I like her smile.”
“My aunt says that my mum always smiled. All the time. She said that even when she felt low about something, she still smiled.”
“That’s the attitude,” said Archie. “No use being down in the dumps. That never makes anything any easier.”
“I think that too,” she said.
Archie looked at her with admiration. If he had ever had a daughter, she would be something like this girl, he thought. That fellow who went off to Australia – he didn’t deserve a daughter like this.
She was still working at six, when Archie told her she could stop.
“You should be getting home now,” he said. “Lots of light still, but you’ll be needing your tea.”
She stood up, brushing the earth from her fingers. She had been weeding a line of cabbages and her knees and her back were sore from the bending.
“I don’t have a watch,” she said. “It broke.”
He smiled. “No need for watches on a farm. There’s the sun. It comes up and you know that’s morning. Goes down and you know it’s night. Simple, really.”
He walked back with her towards the farmhouse. While she collected her scarf and coat, he made his way into a shed and emerged with a basket.
“I’ve got three eggs here for you,” he said. “Fresh today. The hens are laying well. I think they like you.”
She had fed the hens that morning and they had pecked and fluttered about her feet, desperate for the grain; silly creatures, she thought, with their fussing and clucking about nothing very much. Now she peered into the basket; he had wrapped each egg in a twist of newspaper, but she could see they were of a generous size. The ration was one egg a week for each person, and here were three.
“You’re very kind,” she said, taking the basket. “I’ll bring the basket back tomorrow.”
He nodded. “You say hello to your aunt from me.”
“And ride carefully down that lane. Those trucks from the base sometimes come this way and they don’t know how to drive, half of them.”
“I’ll be careful.”
It took her forty minutes to reach the village. There were no cars – not a single one – and no trucks. This was deep England, far away from any big town, a self-contained world of secret, hedge-marked fields and short distances. Wheeling her bicycle into the back yard, she leaned it against the wall of the shed. Then she went inside, the eggs her trophy, proudly held before her.
Annie kissed her. “Clever girl,” she said. “You must be working hard for him to treat you to those.”
“He’s a kind man, Auntie.”
Annie agreed. “Everyone speaks highly of Archie Wilkinson.” She began to unwrap the eggs. “They say he wanted to get married but never did. Too much work to do. Never got away from that farm of his.” She paused. “It could still happen, of course. But look at these eggs: lovely brown shells. Look.”
Val examined one of the eggs. “Made so perfectly, aren’t they? So smooth.”
“One each,” said Annie. “Coddled? A coddled egg is hard to beat.”
Val nodded. “Is Willy in yet?”
Willy was a relative – a distant connection by marriage – who had been staying with Annie for the last year. He was working on the land, too, although the farm to which he had been sent, a farm that belonged to a man called Ted Butters, was further away, and by all accounts very different from Archie’s place. Not that they heard much about it from Willy, who was not very bright and forgot things easily. He was two years older than Val and had never been able to have a proper job. He had come to live with Annie when he had been sent to work on the farm, which was more or less all he could do.
“There’s no danger of the army coming for Willy,” Annie had observed. “Poor boy, but at least he’s not going to have to put on a uniform. He’d never cope with army life.”
Val got on well with Willy – it would be hard not to. She liked his openness, and his innocent, generous smile. “He’s very gentle,” she said to a friend who enquired about the rather ungainly young man she had seen coming out of the post office.
“Willy wouldn’t hurt a fly. But there’s not much he can do really. He can pick potatoes and things like that, and precious little else.”
Now Annie said, “Willy will like this egg. He loves eggs, doesn’t he? I bet that farmer up there will not be giving him much. Mean piece of work.”
Half an hour later they sat down at the kitchen table. Annie served the coddled eggs with pieces of bread on which she had scraped a thin layer of dripping.
“This is a real feast,” said Val.
Willy beamed with pleasure. “I like eggs,” he said. “Always have.”
Val washed up, with the wireless on in the background. She listened to the announcer with his grave, clipped voice. Bad news given in measured tones could even sound reassuring. Willy, of course, only half grasped what was happening. “The desert’s very dry,” he remarked. “Where do they get the water for the tanks?”
“Oases,” said Annie. It suddenly occurred to her that he might be thinking of water tanks, rather than armoured tanks.
“But don’t you worry about that, Willy.”
“That’s where camels go,” he said. “That’s so, isn’t it? Them oases have wells and palm trees that give you those things, those nuts.”
“Dates,” said Val.
“The Americans are here, anyway,” said Willy. “I saw some. Big fellows. They had one of those jeeps.”
Val gazed out of the window. She did not mind the fact that her life was like this, with not very much going on; with Willy saying these odd, unconnected things, and her aunt with her knitting; but sometimes you wondered – you could not help yourself – you wondered whether it would be like this forever.