Toots and I

Episodes from the letters of an English spinster who, with the help of one elderly farm hand, runs a small farm in East Kent, not far from Dover.

December 1940
ALL you dears — a happy Christmas and may you be together as many as may be. Wherever you are I hope isn’t as noisy as we are here in the ‘Cockpit.’ We are a danger zone, which means no one’s supposed to come into or out of our area — so no refugees. David [a nephew] still manages it from time to time, otherwise I’ve seen none of the family for over a year. We are all very matey and dependent on each other, and the large permanent sanity of farming goes on unperturbed by ‘this upset,’ as the war’s called hereabouts, though our fields were strewn at one time with crashed planes and now have craters and burnt patches (incendiaries) and our houses drop plaster and tiles.
The other week I was spreading dung in one field while the old chap who works for me was clipping a hedge, ‘our usual ‘ going on overhead. When the row died down a bit, Toots called over to me, ‘Find anything?’ ‘No — what?’ says I. ‘Well,’ says he, ‘I saw things drop and make little puffs of smoke.’ ‘Where?’ I shouted. ‘Oh, nighabouts where you are,’ he remarked calmly.
I had told him to take out when they were machine-gunning low if he was carting, and one day I said, ‘I suppose you took out this morning.’ ‘No,’ says he, very surly, ‘I didn’t. What’s the use? I’d only have had to catch the mare up again. . . . You want your dung out, don’t you?’ he added fiercely. ‘Well, then.’
Toots is Roots really, but a bit queer on the feet, so is called Tootsie Rootsie — Toots for short. I think he rose to his highest moment when he came back to work on the day France collapsed just as I was listening to the one-o’clock news. I called him in and he listened in silence; then he got up, took up his tools, and remarked, ‘Well, I allus did say, if you’d got a job to do you’d as lief do it yourself.’ He and his wife had been married seventeen years before his wonderful John was born, and John is now out with the B. E. F. I watched him go slowly down the path looking bent and old — and knew he was England, country England, unshakable.

January, 1941
One nice remark Toots made this morning — he said something about carrying the ewes out some extra hay, as it’s a white world here now and they must all be fed. I said, ‘Go easy — this may go on as it did last year,’ and he muttered, ‘It ain’t fit! When will old Hitler be done crabbing the animals’ mouths like this? It ain’t fit, and’ — with a nasty look at me — ‘you know it.’. . .
My first parachutist I remember vividly — June or early July, I forget which. Lovely fight-seeing weather, and they kept it up day after day. One morning a fight overhead ended in a burst of flame from one plane and a parachute, and as we followed it coming down I saw it was very near. So I shouted to Toots and ran. I saw, trotting along with her small dogs, a seventy-year-old neighbor of mine. I called, ‘I’m after the parachute — let’s leave the plane.’ It was burning away in the next field but one. In those days we’d had no Germans down and we expected this was a German, but neither of us thought it might be unpleasant. Unfortunately one of the blasted little dogs got astray and old Mrs. J. insisted on finding him before planes, parachutes, or anything — so I left her and made for the plane and found a delicate-looking unruffled lad from Lagos (West Africa) and one L. D. V. [Local Defense Volunteers, now Home Guard) who’d arrived before me.
The plane was popping away its machine-gun ammunition and burning like fun, but the boy said he’d found such a nice soft oak to come down in. His parachute was untorn, and he quite immaculate. Odds and ends of soldiers arrived, and I smoked the pilot’s cigarettes, and then, just as we were leaving for him to come up here and telephone, we met a triumphant little Mrs. J., who had found her dog! As the pilot remarked, ‘It’s that sort of thing must put the wind up Hitler,’ for of course there were fights going on all the time and a simply deafening noise.

Toots and I have fallen out — a question of lime — both equally sure we are right and the other willfully stupid, but it came to ‘I won’t’ on his side, and on mine, ‘Go home, then, and I’ll do it myself.’ Superior smile from Toots, and, by the grace of having David here from the BBC for a night and by back-breaking labor, I did it. Next morning up came Toots, with an apple turnover from the missus, and nothing further was said about lime. Later on he remarked, ‘I told the missus we’d fallen out and we’d only done half the job — we had to fall in again.’ And then: ‘It’s just you talking and me talking, and the truth’s there just the same.’ I’d often heard that grand piece of country wisdom before: ‘It’s just him talking and me talking, and the truth’s there just the same,’ but, as Toots said it, it struck me — isn’t that the core of their unmoved soreness of the ultimate end of ‘this upset’? Propaganda hasn’t much chance if one’s sure the Truth is there just the same.
Today is ‘turn of days,’ and it’s queer how our hearts lift at the thought. We know that often we get harder weather after than before it, but nonetheless it’s turn of days and our backs to winter and our faces to the spring — and I think you can never savor an English, and especially a Kent, spring unless you’ve been farming through an English winter.

Many are the chuckles that the thought of Hitler’s mechanized invasion ploughing through our Kent ‘slurry’ causes hereabouts! There never surely can be trickier land to farm than this — cither so wet it can’t be worked or so dry it cracks; but, though we abuse it ourselves, if any outsider does we say at once that it stands up to drought better than light soil, or some such defense of our own. Not that possession is the real idea — we are all definitely serving the land. One grand story: A threadbare man asked if I had a job for him, and in the bitter March wind I put him on to hoe mangolds, his skin showing through his cotton dungarees, which were tied round his ankles so as not to show he had nothing on except his boots. He worked for a week and I asked if thirty-five shillings would be all right. He snorted I could keep my thirty-five shillings. So, knowing it was a beastly job, I asked what he did want. ‘Thirtyfive shillings!’ he growled. ‘I’ll not take it — you can’t afford it and the land can’t carry it. Give me twenty-five.’
You should have seen the youngsters hop-picking with low fighting going on, and vying with each other at telling which were ‘ours.’ ‘You must see it — it’s just over the oast — now it’s turning. Now you just follow my finger’ — and so on. There is nothing much they don’t know about Heinkels and Messerschmitts and Junkers, having crawled all over them when they were down. Two young neighbors coming back from school this afternoon passed me gaping at a packet of Spitfires ripping into an enemy formation overhead and called to me, as they went on their way, ‘Better get in, Miss — they’re right overhead.’ And, having seen to the safety of the women, these seven-yearolds chattered merrily on.
By the way, talking of the queer effects of blast, the one which took my neighbor’s house made me laugh all by myself in spite of the row, for as the bomb fell my curtain rod lifted off its nail, the curtain ran down the rod and neatly leapt out of the window — all in one, like a conjuring trick. It doesn’t sound funny, but it was to see, and there was I, lights blazing, while Jerry was rattling about above, till I could gather the curtain up from the yard. The blasts often stop the pendulum of the kitchen clock, but that is natural in a way — the curtain I would not have believed if I had not seen it.

The funny thing about it is we are all pacifists at heart. ‘Don’t old Hitler know better?’ my neighbors say, puzzled. Don’t he know we weren’t sent into this world to querl and fight?’
One evening I went up the path to Toots’s cottage and I heard high words. John was home on leave, and I gathered he and his father were what Mrs. Roots calls ‘argybarging’ over the war. I heard John’s voice say, ‘Well, Dad, maybe you’ll be proud of me one day,’ and Toots, very slow, ‘ Maybe I will, but it won’t be long of all this morrising about the world shooting people.’ Toots always maintains, ‘I ain’t done old Hitler no hurt and I don’t see no call for his doing me none.* And yet, with it all, I’ve never heard any of them question for a moment stopping now it’s started. They are sure ‘it don’t make no sense,’ but then so much else doesn’t, either.
The only time you see people here looking at all fussed is when we have our very rare spells of quiet; then you hear peevish ‘Where are the Jerries? Too quiet to be healthy. Don’t like this — must mean he’s up to something,’ and so on. Not that we are often made nervous that way.
Two nice lads in a huge army lorry, — they use them as we would bicycles, — came about billeting. I told them they could, of course, do what they liked; it’s to be sixteen in the house anyway, and the barn if it’s needed. What amused me about it was the lads fencing with my question as to when. So I eventually said, ‘Another spasm of invasionitis, I suppose,’ and they looked relieved and talked openly then. They had obviously been sparing the feelings of a lone elderly female.
I know now that fights overhead, near-by bombs, fires, planes coming down round about, aren’t what put one off one’s stroke; nor the rather mazed Germans who come to be taken prisoner off parachutes; but if the door burst open and a party of armed Germans walked in, would I do the right thing? And anyhow, what is the right thing one is expected to do? Telephone if one can, of course, but is it likely one could? Anyhow, one really hardly ever thinks of it, and it’s no use planning ahead.
The other day a parachute landed a Jerry lad of eighteen. He was taken to Toots’s missus for a wash. Toots came up next morning very snorty. ‘Miss B. and the missus had allus said all they’d do if they caught a German, and there they were muddling round him for best part of an hour and I got no tea.’

We’ve been more in the war just lately, after an eerie quiet which we felt oppressive. I saw seventy-two of ours go over in formations in a clear high frosty sky on Sunday, a good sight after not seeing anything for so many cloudblanketed days, and the next evening coming up from milking I heard a roar and across the orchard, hardly clearing the trees, came a huge black bomber — the biggest I’ve seen; and above, like birds over a hawk, two little Spitfires behind, but going flat out and overtaking. They got him before he left Kent.
Last night we had a really noisy night, bumps all round, and it snowed. It had been white, and was hard and clearing well, and now it is deep soft powder and looks like more. The relative importance of the two was what struck me. Toots came up this morning with a face as long as a week. ‘Oh dear, Miss! Ain’t this awful! I heard a blundering outside and I said to the missus I was going to see what was up. She said it was only Jerry, but I knew different, and there it was — a great drift heavens high come off the washhouse roof and piled across the door. I could have cried. All the creatures short, and the land made so unkindly there’ll be no getting on it for weeks.’ He would not be diverted and kept on about the snow and the hay and the unkindliness of the land after being sodden with snow. I always think the way the land is spoken of shows the real feeling for it—‘just a little unkindliness’ where growth is stunted and poor, ‘a well-mannered’ crop if it’s ‘in good heart.’

March 1941
I’ve been down to the coast today to a seaside slum, such as we produce all along our very unattractive coast line, and, my goodness, there’s some slum clearance there! The only thing that really gave me a pang was the shell of one of our loveliest Marsh Churches, just the tower steeple and one wall left standing, but it’s all queer down there. Children played about and women stood gossiping (there was a quite lively air raid on all the time we were there). Men were busy carting wurzel, and ploughing, and sowing fertilizers, and all round sentries with Tommy guns who stopped us at intervals and entered our names from our identity cards in books, and the whole marsh is growing a crop of . . . [Censored] It simply bristles, and yet there, quietly going on all as usual, were the farmers. There’s more of their lovely soil turned up than usual, and fewer sheep, but otherwise it’s just the usual seasonal work of the Marsh uninterrupted.
The night before last there were half a dozen big bumps. When one comes very near and your heart jumps, you quickly realize it’s not got you that time, and the next will be further along anyhow and it won’t help to get upset. There’s where I feel they’ve made a big mistake. If we had not had so much, we should get windy with much less.

April 1941
I’ve come to the conclusion it’s a mistake to meet an adversary face to face as a person; it’s so hard then to go on being adverse. We found that with the young, frightened, and often rather silly Germans who bailed out round here last summer. No one could feel warlike about them even when we had been machine-gunned ourselves and when we had seen them machine-gunning our bailing-out pilots, though that did make one bloodthirsty in spirit. In fact, it was always a cup of tea, a cigarette, and a wash one gave them. John Roots wrote to me from the Desert, ‘I’m glad Mum was all right with the German she got. She always said she’d shoot one if she could, but you can’t really — they do look so miserable, poor chaps. Here we give them what we can and try to cheer them up a bit; they do look wretched, these Ities [Italians].’
Toots remarked yesterday, ‘When will old Hitler get set back? But there! We keep saying when will the grass grow, and, gi’ un the right time and weather, you can grow a stack in a fortnight.’