“Farming or fishing?” The matron’s hand waited to grab the right stamp. “Come on, come on! We don’t have all day for you to decide.” Her bulldog face glared out at Colin and me from behind the heavy metal desk.
She terrifies me so much I can’t even answer her. This is not anything like the grand adventure I thought it would be.
“Well?” she barked.
“I like fishing, Lizzie,” Colin’s tiny voice whispered. He squeezed my hand so tightly it hurt. I looked down into my little brother’s eyes and saw fear and confusion. I wanted to grab him and run back home to Mum.
“Fishing it is,” the matron said, and stamped our papers with a force that shook the desk and made us jump. “Next!”
Another matron attached a baggage tag to our collars: “Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB)” with our names, a number (mine was #158, Colin’s was #159), and our destination – Halifax, Nova Scotia. A different matron herded us to long wooden benches in the corner of the cavernous room. The ceiling must have been three stories high and the walls were dirty gray concrete. One wall was missing. The open space led directly to the docks and the sea. Workers and seamen roared out orders to get the ships loaded while the squawking gulls circled above looking for scraps of food.
“Girls to the left, boys to the right.”
“No!” Colin screeched. “Don’t leave me, Lizzie. I’m scared.”
Me too. Everyone shivered from both fear and the biting wind that tore through the room. Only the matrons, with their warm woolen shawls, seemed immune as they patrolled the aisles alongside the benches.
“It’s okay, Colin. Soon we’ll be on the boat, together again, and out in the warm sunshine,” I said wrapping my arm around his shoulders and pulling him close. “Here, don’t forget your gas mask.”
“Do I have to? I hate that thing. It stinks.”
“I know, but you won’t have to wear it much longer. Soon we’ll be away from here.”
I hated the gas masks too. They were made of rubber and covered your whole face. An air filter hung down from the bottom like an elephant’s trunk. The plastic eye shields misted over in hot weather so you could hardly see through them. Each one came with its own cardboard case and a string so you could carry it over your shoulder wherever you went.
“Let’s go,” the matron said. “I don’t have time for your nonsense, or crying. And, you should have been carrying your own mask. What would you do if your sister was separated from you? Now take a seat and be quiet or you’ll answer to that man.”
I looked where she pointed. A giant of a man sat on a tall stool placed behind a podium that stood in front of the benches. He smacked his switch against the palm of his hand and stared. His dark beady eyes burrowed right through me. I had seen that look before from teachers and headmasters, and knew there would be no warning. There would only be the swish of his switch on my back. I gave Colin’s shoulder a quick shove, sat down, and folded my hands in my lap. He stared at me in horror. I had never pushed him away before. I think I’m going to be sick.
After I settled on the rough wooden bench, I stole a quick glance across the aisle at Colin. He sat rubbing his palms up and down his thighs, a habit he had when he was scared. I had promised Mum I would never leave him alone, would always protect him. Now in the first hour after arriving at the departure dock, I had left him alone. How can I watch out for him if he’s not sitting next to me? My stomach churned. I know I’m going to be sick any minute. I raised my hand to ask to be excused, and just as quickly pulled it back down. If I turn sick, they won’t let me go on the ship. Then Colin will really be alone. I took a deep breath and swallowed hard. I had to make sure Colin understood I would never leave him. We’ll all have to be brave now, just as brave as our boys fighting Jerry. I glanced at Colin again and smiled reassuringly. An older boy, seated next to him, held his hand for a minute. I nodded my thanks to him. Colin looked up at him, turned and gave me a weak smile. We’ll make it through this.
I looked around the room. A line of children stretched out the door. How many more are there? There were already about a hundred boys and girls bunched together on the benches. Everyone looked frightened and worn out. I was tired and hungry. My feet were numb from the cold concrete floor, and my body ached from sitting still. There was also the constant fear of one of the matrons slapping me for some imaginary wrongdoing. One of the boys had already been slapped for whispering. At least that’s what the matron said he did. Or worse yet, the ogre who was in charge of the room might come down from his high stool and lash me for disobedience. I had seen it happen in school. Was it my turn now?
I forced myself to think of other things. The familiar scent of the salty sea wafted through the opening along with the stench of the rotting garbage on the docks and in the harbor’s waters. I could hear the waterfront rats scurrying around the corners of the room, always prowling for something to eat. The hard rough wooden bench was making my bum numb. I wondered how many other children had waited on them and if they’d been as nervous as I was at that moment.
I stared at the ceiling and tried to imagine what Canada would be like. What a glorious adventure I had hoped this would be. I crossed my fingers and prayed I was right.
After hours of waiting in the dockside warehouse, a Navy officer came in and talked to the ogre at the front of the room.
“There’ll be no sailing today. Too many U-boats in the area to ship out safely.”
“What are we supposed to do with all these children?”
“We made arrangements with a school and a factory down the road to house them for the night. It’s the best we could do. With luck, we’ll sail tomorrow.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant. Matron, let’s get the children lined up and over to the school.”
“Yes, sir. Children, listen up. The matrons will line you up in twos by rows. Be quick now, and no talking.”
Margaret became my partner on the walk over from the docks. I didn’t know her name until later that day. She would soon become my best friend. When we got there, we were led to a large gymnasium-like room. Its walls were a dull light green color and the wooden floor was scratched and worn with years of use. The smell of sweat filled the room.