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Pensive en route

Yesterday I took some children for a drive, an unusual ploy for me, since I am of an age when children tend to be playing in somebody else's garden, or else their mothers doubt my ability to cope. They are right in this dubiety, for though I have perfect control of a car my authority over the young is practically nil. This lot of infants, restless as mercury, inquisitive and slippery as seals, drew my mind back to the 1939-45 war (one has to be precise since so many people nowadays cannot, it seems, "place the war) when the young were evacuated from London and its air raids.

The idea of driving into the green country with poor city children, visioning a future life for them in which glasses of milk and gulps of fresh air abounded, in which cheeks grew pinker and eyes bluer as the days went by, was distinctly pleasant, I recall. But I also recall that these visions of a happier world occurred more often on the solitary journeys home, when the little darlings, overxcited or frightened, or just plain obstreperous, had been deposited with their somewhat apprehensive foster parents.

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After a time I became adept at diverting children's attention from the joyous occupation of opening and shutting windows, trying to open doors, pressing all visible knobs, and asking every two minutes if we were nearly there. I acquired a repertoire of enormously complicated stories, about ducks and teddy bears and little boys called Arnold and Marmaduke (the names themselves temporarily stunned my audience into silence), and I also became quite skilled at driving with one hand (occasionally with none).

There was a lot of potential heartbreak in this evacuation business, and one expected the children to cry when they were wrenched from their mothers -- they certainly looked infinitely pathetic, with their gas masks in cardboard boxes slung over their shoulders -- but strangely enough few of them did.They were British, of course. And cockney. In those days that stood for something. . . . I can't remember what, it is such a long time ago, but at any rate you didn't cry easily.

Children are queer creatures, and most of the time you have no idea what they are thinking, or why. These Cockney waifs that I delivered smudged with chocolate and left looking distrustfully over garden gates were as unpredictable as the English weather, their conversation a series of non sequiturs and imponderables. One made allowance for every sort of behaviour, of course, since the circumstances were so dire, yet it was impossible not to be surprised at times. One tough little girl, who incidentally impeded our progress to Devonshire by turning the engine on and off with monotonous regularity, said she supposed I'd left my own children locked up in a dark room at home.

"Good heavens!" I cried, aghast, "does your mother do that when she goes out?"

"Always," she replied, with the utmost complacency, as she pulled out the choke with one hand and switched on the lights with the other.

I was appalled, but the child, who looked perfectly healthy and happy, evidently thought I was being ridiculous.

The children I was driving yesterday, and who were the source of this reminiscence, were not being evacuated from their homes, were under no strain, but they shared with their juvenile antecedent exactly the same objectives, the identical desire to do as much damage as possible to the car in the shortest possible time and, of course, to make me exceed t he speed limit. Plus ca changem . . .

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