Excerpt of Life by Mal Peet
(Page 1 of 4)
Printer Friendly Excerpt
Norfolk, early March, 1945
Ruth AckRoyd was in the garden checking the
rhubarb when the RAF Spitfire accidentally shot her
chimney-pot to bits. The shock of it brought the baby on
three weeks early.
"I was expectun," she'd often say, over the years. "But I
wunt expectun that."
She'd had cravings throughout her pregnancy, ambitious
ones: tinned ham, chocolate, potted shrimps, her husband's
touch, rhubarb. Rhubarb was possible though. Ruth and her
mother, Win, grew it in the cottage garden. They forced it;
which is to say they covered the plants with upended buckets
so that when new tendrils poked through the soil, they
found themselves in the dark and grew like mad, groping for
light. Stalks of forced rhubarb were soft, blushed and stringless.
You could eat them without sugar, which was rationed,
and Ruth wanted to. So she'd waddled out into the garden
on a rare day of early-spring sunshine to lift the buckets and
see how things were doing. See if there was any chance of
Win had said, "You put that ole coat on, if yer gorn out.
There's a wind'd cut yer jacksy in half."
Ruth hadn't seen George since his last leave, when,
silently (because Win was sleeping, or listening, a thin
wall away) he'd got her pregnant. Now he was in Africa.
Or Italy, or somewhere. There was no way she could imagine
his life. He might even be dead. The last letter had
come in January:
"The last push, or so they say
Cold as hell here in the
Hope you and the little passenger are well. Love,
Probably not dead, because there'd have been a telegram.
Like Brenda Cushion had got, six months ago.
Ruth had gone down the garden path with her huge
belly in front of her. She was frightened of it. She had little
idea what giving birth might involve. Win had told her
almost nothing; she was against the whole thing. Knocked
up by a soldier: history repeating itself. Nothing good could
come of it. The baby had grown in Ruth, struggling and
undiscussed. An unspeakable thing. A wartime mishap. The
two women had sat the winter out in front of dying fires of
scrounged fuel, listening to the wireless, grimly knitting, not
talking about it.
* * *
Washing blew on the line: tea towels, Ruth's yellowish
vests, her mother's bloomers ballooned by the wind, their
elasticated leg-holes pouting.
There were two rhubarb clumps, a rusty-lipped bucket
inverted over each. Ruth had leaned, grunting, to lift the
first one when all hell broke loose above her head.
The air-raid siren had not gone off. The air-raid siren
was a big grey thing the shape of a surprised mouth
mounted on a wooden tower behind the Black Cat garage,
over a mile away. It made a moan that turned hysterical,
then stopped, then started over again, rising in pitch, driving
the local dogs mad. Throughout the summer of 1940 it
had wailed day and night as the German planes came over,
and Ruth and Win had spent terrible long hours in the darkness
under the stairs waiting for it to stop. Or for the riot
in the skies to fall upon them and kill them. (Sometimes
Ruth couldn't stand it and had gone outside, despite her
mother's prayerful begging, to watch and listen to the dogfights
in the sky, the white vapour-trails scratched against
the blue, the black trails of planes falling, the awful hesitations
of engine-noise that meant one of ours or one of theirs
was falling, a man in a machine was burning down.) But
on this occasion the siren remained silent. There had been
no German air-raids for eighteen months, after all. The war
was over, bar the shouting.
So Ruth was terribly surprised when the chimney-pot
exploded and the German plane came from behind the
elms and filled the garden with savage noise. The machine
was so low that she was certain it would plunge into the
cottage. She fell backwards with her knees in the air and
saw, with absolute clarity, the rivets that held the bomber
together and its vulnerable glass nose and the black cross on
its fuselage and the banner of fire that trailed from its wing.
One of the Spitfires in pursuit was pulling out of a dive. Its
underbelly was the same blue as the heavy old pram that
Chrissie Slender had lent her. The sound of the planes was
so all-consuming that the fragments of the chimney tumbled
silently into the yard. Inside their wire run, the hens
Excerpted from Life
by Mal Peet. Copyright © 2011 by Mal Peet.
Excerpted by permission of Candlewick Press. All rights
reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.