Prickling with nervous energy, the small hands reached for their coats, prising them from the upturned pegs that began and ended each and every school day. Equally routine was the jostling for position in the march out of the school house: a shimmering line of tanned satchels rubbing and coaxing leather; a sea of untidy bodies threading their way through the grey-lit hallway; and there, next to the bright red telephone box, the perennial mores were to cease: the tiny uniformed children thronging, waiting for a call; one that would tell them to leave behind their old lives and all that they knew. But this was no ordinary evacuation, for the bombs had rarely threatened to disturb this peaceful haven in the Purbeck Hills; instead, the land had been taken from within. Whilst the radio buzzed with sightings of the wings of the Luftwaffe eagles, it was the khaki conversation of the Nissan huts that had ultimately decided their fate. And four years after the war had begun, on a bitterly cold day, the Creech village postmaster had delivered to each household the letters that brought the unwelcome news of evacuation.
As the Grebbel children huddled together, they looked up at the flags, fluttering around in the tireless wind, and soon they thought of nothing but snow and Christmas. Though barbed wire had become a familiar sight in the landscape, as had the tank traps along the coast, the community had come together to celebrate with defiant vigour throughout each of the war years. But now, with the impending scattering of families across the coastal hills, there would be little to rejoice.
Daphne Grebbel looked commanding behind the wheel having taken driving lessons and tractor maintenance courses in the early years of the war. The army had told her to be gone by Christmas; they had planned to put guns on the ridge behind the house and fire over it. No information had been conveyed personally; just letters, all formal, all paying little heed to the efforts she had made to double her output for the war whilst maintaining a meagre living for her family. And all this accomplished in the shadow of loss.
Their relocation was to be a brand new house near Lulworth but one entirely impractical for a family who had spent generations milking cows and tending crops. The official line was that places were hard to find; and so they were ‘politely’ informed that as they were unable to accept the offer, relocation had now become their responsibility. Left with little choice, they would have to be ‘taken in’: Mrs Grebbel’s aunt owned a smallholding near East Holme and there they would hope to grow fruit and veg, keep some chickens and run a couple of pigs or sheep. Not ideal, but it would do.
As the van approached, Anne and Harry picked up their coats and bags, and readied themselves for the big day. Although they had been aware of the plan to evacuate and re-house the village for some time now, its shadow had rarely touched them; when they had seen an angry crowd gathered outside the Post Office arguing with army officials two days before, they had swept its significance aside and considered it to be just the war effort ‘gone wobbly’.
Jumping into the cabin, the day felt like any other: fighting over scratchy blankets on leather seats that smelled of stale dog was the norm; but today, their sibling squabbles came to a sudden halt when each had turned to see the back of the van piled high with the entire contents of their home.
Harry sighed, his lip curled. He was angry. ” You’ve seen it before. Why bother?”
“Hope — it gives me hope that one day we’ll come back,” retorted Anne, sharply.
“Of course we’ll come back,” interjected Mrs Grebbel. Her tone was soft and soothing; but there was something in her eyes that stole away the note of promise. “A few months and it’ll all be over. We’ll back home in no time.”
The van stopped beside the tiny church and Anne dashed up the path, hoping that the sign had been replaced by another announcing the evacuation to be one elaborate joke. But it was still there. Of course it was. She sighed gently and read aloud, ignorant to the presence of any audience:
Please treat the church and houses with care; we have given up our homes where many of us lived for generations to help win the war to keep men free.
We shall return one day and thank you for treating the village kindly.
Though the board had been nailed to the church door only a week before, Anne had read the sign countless times; and each time it had left her with a remarkably different feeling. There had been rumours: some warned that once belongings were packed up, homes tipped up and turned out, backs turned away, it was the very last they would see of their beloved little village; but today, Anne’s heart was brimming with hope: she knew that one day they would all return.
The van trundled off into the distance, swerving and swaying on the uneven surface, hitting a dense, windless mist that had rolled in the previous night, now settled upon the fractured coast. With each attack of the road, the van’s contents dislodged further from their moorings, bouncing and colliding, taking boxes, cases and frames on a haphazard journey across the shifting platform.
“I don’t understand,” barked Harry. “It was the Germans I was waiting for — that’s who I thought would shift us. Not our own men!”
Daphne was about to say something — to silence him — but she knew his thoughts entirely reflected her own. And, like him, her anger and resentment could not easily be assuaged; instead she chose to put it aside and accept they had to make the move; there was simply no time for looking back and cursing.
After an hour or so, the mist had begun to lift and what at first had appeared to be a faint speck on the hillside had now sharpened into their new home. Here the road was more even, gently curving around adjoining fields, meandering past speckles of sheep upon the hillside, until, at last, they came upon the crumbling boundary walls of the house. The indignant squawking of chickens stabbed the silence, running to and fro behind the untidy stacks of worn timber that shielded the garden from view. And then, bit by bit, between the discarded pieces of machinery, rusting in their untended graves, the house began to reveal itself.
It looked terribly old. Wild flowers partly cloaked the scars of rain and rot that attacked the foundations, whilst the gutters looked as though they had weaved themselves into the very fabric of the building. Every now and then, a gust of wind urged another slate to throw itself off the roof; and would whip up the dust, spitting it at the house, leaving grey trails upon the porch.
As they took the first step, the whole frame creaked and groaned as if announcing its distress at surviving another winter. Treading carefully, they climbed the remaining mud-splattered steps and gently opened the front door. Inside, the house appeared empty. Though they did not expect electricity — it had been slow to arrive in coastal Dorset — neither candle nor lamp welcomed them; and most peculiar of all was the absence of Alice.
Moving through the tight corridor, towards the back of the house, it was clear to see that the house remained inhabited: food-stained crockery sat on the kitchen table; a meal abandoned, half-eaten; curtains tied back to begin the day, and a bed unmade.
“Hello? …….Hello? ….Anyone here? Aunt Alice….?” Several times did Daphne repeat her call, and at length her voice grew shrill with concern, stripped to a brittle edge. But nothing came back from the brooding stillness; and with that the children had skulked gently into her shadow, sinking, sensing their little stores of hope fading.
With their hearts heavy, the three shuffled warily through the remainder of the house opening every door, every well-stocked cupboard, every full drawer …even looking under beds.
Outside the barn doors rattled; hay bales and scarecrows stood silent.
At the side of the house, an abandoned tractor and plough; its paint-flecked body straddling the neck of the gravel lane and the field gate.
Daphne told Anne and Harry to wait in the kitchen whilst she searched the outbuildings; though neither of them wanted to be alone, especially in a room where the remains of a half-eaten meal jarred with the cold, lifeless surrounds.
Approaching the inert machinery bottlenecking the end of the lane, cast aside and twisted awkwardly , she thought she had seen a movement in the window of the cabin, but closer inspection showed it to be a pair of red ribbons, tied to the wheel of the tractor blowing shapelessly in the breeze. It was unfathomable why the vehicle had been left in such a clumsy position and to leave the gate open, well…
With no warning, a tear formed and slipped from her eye. One sole tear, no more, chilling in the cold air. Tough as old boots was Daphne Grebbel but for a moment she had felt vulnerable, weak and alone, abandoned like discarded machinery; the past months had seen her functioning without feeling, just to get by, for her children, for her dead husband.
Two scarecrows appeared to gaze at her from across the field. Old and shabby, made from faded burlap sack, leaking spindly fingers of straw; their trousers sinking sloppily below the string-corseted waists, as if, any second now, they would quickly hoist them up and break the spell stupefying the house and the land beyond.
Breathing a weary sigh, she turned and returned to the house.
Back there, she found the children seated at the kitchen table. She prepared herself, placing her hands upon one of the chairs and wrestled back her composure. ‘Children, I’m sure aunt Alice has only popped out to complete an errand … or maybe she’s gone to visit a friend or neighbour. It’s also possible that she may have entirely forgotten we were due today!’
Anne stirred a little in her seat, as if comforted by her mother’s remarks.
‘Her memory can sometimes be quite poor,’ Daphne added.
Anne nodded and smiled; so too would have Harry if his mother had not taken so long.
Minutes before, he had stepped out the back door and stood in the small fenced courtyard, his eyes searching beyond the gate, along the gravel and dust that spread up to the boundary field. Between the occasional gaps offered by the washing as it tensed and snapped against the tight wooden pegs, he had seen his aunt’s bicycle, resting against an old lean-to, a patchwork frame of old and new paint, glinting slimly in the dim light.
Instantly, he recalled his mother speaking of the bicycle as if it were a local legend.
He stepped a little closer and felt the spray of washing.
The bicycle had obviously seen a lot of use; a bit rusted around the edges but probably working fine.
Alice and the bicycle were virtually inseparable he had been told; and she had rarely been seen in the surrounding villages without it. Whatever the weather, she had cycled from home to shop and back again; a sight as cosily familiar as the postman or the butcher, out on their rounds, and her only transport, having seen her through the intervening years between the wars, right through to the final winter she had spent with her husband.
With evening pressing, a great coldness had arrived and the children had begun to shiver; and so Daphne gathered wood from the barn and built a small fire. Against the walls, their shadows danced and flickered; but beyond this nothing moved: not in the house, not in the pastures beyond; and now, not a single squawk from the chickens.
Occasionally the main door would rattle, thundering against its frame, buffeted by the winds whipped off the sea; and then, the four inhabitants would rise in anticipation of the return of their absent host from her travels. But for every occasion they had inspected the hallway and returned disappointed, the closer they came to accepting something dreadful had happened to her.
Gathering blankets and anything else warm she could find, Daphne threw together makeshift beds on the boarded floor of the living room; and after the children had said their prayers ¬— spoken with a newfound relevance — the family settled down for the night, prepared for one plagued with uncertainty.
As she lay in the darkness, motionless, she scoured her mind for answers but none came; and soon a terrible exhaustion swept over her and she fell into a deep sleep.
It was a few hours later, the house still shrouded in darkness, the only light that of the dying embers upon the hearth, when her rest had become fitful, and following much tossing and turning she had become aware of a sweet scent lifting her from sleep, a familiar, rich and heady smell, that of lavender.
She opened her eyes; and there, next to the fireplace, attired in only a nightdress, and bent down as if reaching for something, was her aunt. With sharp, sudden consciousness, her body rigid and with quickening breath, Daphne watched the apparition. The old lady did not turn to see her; instead, she straightened her back and walked, a slow but steady shuffle across the fireplace, brushing past the hearth with no regard for its latent heat. Only when she had moved to the centre of the room and turned her back did Daphne find her voice: ‘Alice …..Aunt Alice….’
But the figure paid no attention to her calls; instead, she continued on her way, entirely untroubled, as if she too had woken up in the night and was searching for something that had disturbed her sleep.
It was only when Alice left her view, did Daphne become aware of the awful trembling and sickening tightness that had invaded her bones. Now, with fear rooting her to the spot, all she could do was listen.
From the kitchen came noises, busy ones: the chinking of plates, a sharp tug of a chair scraping across stone, a cough quickly stifled. And in the gaps between the sounds, the shuffling of feet.
In these moments, Daphne was unaware of the knot of flesh she had grabbed from her thigh, one she pinched between her fingers. There was something so intensely real in these sights and sounds, nothing more so than the odour that had flooded the room. She took a deep breath of the scent and felt calmer. There was something very familiar about it.
Rising slowly from the floor, she grew aware that the sounds from the kitchen had become fainter; now, only the dying crackles of charcoaled wood upon the hearth punctured the silence. This glow was enough to light the way to the edge of the living room, and the filtering moonlight enough to take her the short distance to the kitchen. And there she found the kitchen entirely untouched; and her aunt nowhere to be seen. And from this, she could but assume she had dreamt the most vivid of dreams, and clearly was not herself or, perhaps, had seen something that had been there but was entirely opaque in its meaning.
It was a shard of light that woke her. As to how long she had actually spent slumped forward on the kitchen chair she could not tell but it must have been in the region of hours for her hips were terribly stiff and achy; and her jaw numb and lifeless from its nocturnal seat in cupped, upturned hands.
Whatever the source of these visions, Daphne was resolute that something had happened to Alice. In a few hours, she would take the children and head to a neighbour. Maybe they would know something of her whereabouts.
Presently, her mind drifted and opened to newly blossomed hopes, for it occurred to her that her aunt’s disappearance might be nothing more than the results of an air raid and a long stay in a shelter ….or, at worst, an injury sustained from falling off her bicycle; and then with stabbing clarity, she remembered what lay in the yard and her heart sank.
From such thoughts she turned away, then steadied herself before returning to the living room. There the children sat before the hearth entertaining themselves with a pack of cards; and like the abandoned meal they had found earlier, the cards had been left abandoned, a few moves short of completing a game of Solitaire.
“My dears, I do believe that Aunt Alice is not planning to return today,” began Daphne, “but I am sure it’s nothing more than a simple misunderstanding over the time of our arrival.”
And then she paused, sensing she had done little to diminish their fears; so she changed tact.
“Of course, as I’ve told you many times, Aunt Alice is a very well thought of person — generous too — so, it’s quite likely that she has been called upon to help someone. She’s probably staying there overnight. I propose that in a short while we take a walk: along the lane stretching from the back of the house and head the half mile or so to the nearest residence. I found a map in the hallway earlier which appears to cover the area. It showed a small cottage not far from the heath, just a short distance along the lane.”
The children nodded and allowed small half smiles to spread into their fragile expressions.
After a night of heavy rain and wind, the hedgerows and fields were bathed in a cold mist, and dusted with a frosting that spread beyond the meadows, down to the banks of the River Frome. Each twig glistened with a line of raindrops that hung below the rolling cloud, scattering a cold silver light that reached through the gaps in the grey. Now and then, a little sun peeked from behind the clouds to warm the winter air.
The walk took them along the lane for a short distance before turning, then steadily onward passing over the channelled waters of the river, running beneath a lichen-scarred footbridge. The drabness of the pebbled lane eventually gave way to a seductive opening in the hedgerow the map indicated pointed towards the house.
Clambering through clumps of dried ivy, they found themselves upon an earthen path that twisted ahead beneath hawthorn and gnarled beech. Only a slim, muddy light was able to find its way through the branches, and the little party took great care to mind the obstacles beneath them, particularly the clumps of abandoned bricks that broke up the path.
It was these shapeless fragments of forgotten walls and buildings, as much bound together by the dark tangle of woodland that had encroached upon the settlement as destroyed by it, that had an unsettling effect upon Harry. Within this strange arrangement, there was something quite ghostly; and Harry knew, for all his mounting apprehension, that if anything stirred within its depths he would have to be very brave. And then, almost at the precise moment he had some hold of his composure, it had left him, replaced by a feeling of emptiness, and the sense of something approaching.
Only when they came upon what they were looking for, did the shape that had begun to take on form pass by.
If it had not been for a crack in the branches beyond the path, Anne would not have turned to see the dead structure: the walls of a house, hidden from view behind tall trees, set apart from the main track by a narrow path onto which a wooden gate had fallen, nestled upon an untidy grassless line. But beyond the standing bricks and cladding, the building had long since given up being a home; for the dried vines that had clambered up the weathered stone were unable to hide the gaping holes where windows had been.
Anne stepped over the gate and gently pushed the remains of the door. For a moment it swung, then the top hinge ruptured sending it crashing to the ground.
“Anne, what on earth are you doing? Come away for pity’s sake!” cried her mother leaping forward to pull her away.
“Woooh, I guess it must have been hit some time ago …maybe in the raids last year,” offered Anne, continuing to gaze at the shell of a house that did not convince. She had seen a bombed out building before but it didn’t look like this. No charring, no singeing of the surrounding grass and none of that smell, the smell that always lingered around a blast.
“Can we go, please?” asked Harry. “I really don’t feel comfortable here.”
Daphne’s instinct was to jolly Harry along; but, like him, she had a palpable sense of something dark communicating itself from the waiting trees. The intensity of this gloom caught at her, and made her hurry the children back along the path.
Harry and Anne stared at each other. Both noticed that the other had gone rather white; Harry more so — he was certain he had seen someone in the woods. As for the house, there was no question: it had gone; whether pulled down or burned out he could not say with confidence, but there were no other buildings upon the path, apart from debris; the small mounds of brick and timber that troubled their footing on the way up. And the ivy: it had obviously been there a long time.
For the first time Daphne had begun to doubt her decision to leave Tyneham for East Holme. Not about its rightness — that was a question answered by a series of faceless deliveries from the MOD — but about its practicability. The sight of a house in such decay had alarmed her and turned her thoughts; now her aunt’s farmhouse felt terribly remote and disconnected from any community. Quite possibly, she could return to Tyneham, tell the authorities that she had made a mistake and now would gladly accept the offer of a house at Lulworth. But she hadn’t bargained for such a loss of faith, and for the second time in just as many days she could feel a tear forming. What could have happened?
A rush of icy wind met the little family as they turned the corner of the lane, and it bore down upon their bones like the breath of fate itself; a breath that had blown cold ever since the war began, reaching out along the lane, up to the house…
Even before she could see them, Daphne knew that the windows of the house would be grey and silent; that no light would be shining through the gaps in the aging frame. Somehow she seemed to have known too of the sense of despair that would engulf her as she came through the door, sharpened by the stillness that filled the little hall as they stood there in the darkness. A stillness like that upon a hill-top baring down over a raging sea. She could almost imagine falling…
Wildly, Daphne reached out for her children and told them they had to leave; she dared not take another step in the smothering blackness — a step that might send her crashing through the ravaged timber, through the walls, out into an unimaginable void.
“Darlings …my little darlings….” she said softly, recovering some composure. “I am so very sorry but I feel that our life here is just not meant to be. Not here at least.”
Immediately, she saw a desperation in their faces, a hunger for stability that she could not yet provide. And though it attacked her bitterly she was entirely convinced that if she and the children did not leave something terrible would happen to them.
“We must return to Tyneham. I am sure there will be someone we can speak to, someone in authority who will sympathise with our predicament.” Then she grew tense, and angry. “It’s simply not right that we have been forced from our homes. Most of us were thinking the same. Maybe we gave up too easily? More than likely we’ll return home and find that the villagers have argued their case for a reprieve. Maybe they’re all at home …safe and sound, waiting for the war to come to an end.”
It was at this that the children observed a trace of the one expression they had never before seen in their mother’s face — fear — a hint in the flickering of her eyes, rising perceptibly in her tone.
As Daphne stood, she urged her body to cease trembling. Reaching down, she clasped her fingers together, tightly interlocking them, and stole herself for the challenge of turning back. Soon the tension slipped from her nerves. Her eyes grew soft again.
It took surprisingly little time for them to pack. As they swept through the house, scooping up evidence of their brief encounter with it, it was clear they had never intended to stay; something that remained there, beyond the presence of Alice, had seen to that. Now, with all their belongings packed into the van they had barely left, they drove away. Only Harry had seen it: a mysterious sea fret, emerging rapidly from the west, tumbling like a pearlescent wave , extending its reach with tendrils, rolling in the precise moment they had left.
The endless white bank shut in the view of the coast for most of the journey; only, at intervals, did it open to receive a fragment of the pale blank sky and grey sea below, and in between a rain sweeping away wildly.
Tirelessly, Daphne tried to keep up the children’s spirits but that was difficult when the route seemed to take so long. Tedious straights and lengthy bends were travelled and navigated where none had appeared to exist on the outward route; and as the van snaked around bend after bend, time seemed to beat out its course in drowsy, indolent seconds. For every jarring crunch of the wheels against the uneven road, the van’s occupants heaved silent sighs and held back their tears in stoic little measures. In the cabin, the whole world appeared to move on unmoved and unnoticing.
Through these listless moments, Daphne had begun to dwell upon fragments of the past; and now, in one unsupposing corner, she had found herself teasing back the layers of a memory, dark and forgotten. It insisted upon her senses and in such a way compelled her to change direction, setting her on a narrow route towards the coast. The van wheels turned.
Out of the swirling bank, came the vehicle; its metal frame struggling with the potholes and pebbled ridges of the coastal path. Nearing the cliffs, it appeared to crawl more slowly every moment, the pressed steel wheels turning more sluggishly with each revolution; finally stopping seemingly without any pressure from the brake as if the van had some mind of its own.
Daphne turned as if to speak to the children but they were fast asleep. With such accusing thoughts pressing upon her, she slipped out of the van and onto the heights overlooking the sea. Captivated by the cold, roiled currents of air ravaging the cliffs, she became aware of a voice, at first distant then a little nearer; one entirely without word but a voice nevertheless, lungless and heavy; one that that seemed to hint of a time before.
The wind beat at her face and brought the sounds closer. For a moment, she was aware of whispers more distinct, sprung upon the eddies that wove their way through the grass: a soft noise, held within the tumbling blades. But these were just the sounds of the wind, insisting that everything in its path should fly. Her mind seduced, she remained held, watching the transformation of the cliff-top lawns before her, criss-crossing and sending the grassy blades in all directions, until her eye caught sight of a curious path to the sea; it was borne on twinned grassless lines, extending for several feet from near where she stood, and out to the cliff edge. Her eyes took the path and in that journey came an unexplainable wave of revelation, as if a window had opened to a light; and in that instance, she felt a rising of something solemn out of the depths, secrets as unfathomable as death itself. A warmness enveloped her and took away the chill.
Daphne opened the door, wrapped the lapels of her coat around her, and switched on the engine.
Only once more did they stop on the journey back to Tyneham. Harry alerted his mother to a group of military men he had seen gathered by the roadside, glimpsed briefly through a break in the mist. But when they had stepped outside of the van, and peered across the road they were already far way, walking across the fields. How odd thought Harry, instantly recollecting that the soldiers he had seen a moment earlier were neither identifiable by their division nor uniform.
It was only when they had reached the familiar cottages bordering the village that the mist lifted. Here, Anne looked out of the window, and immediately she noticed how grey everything had become. An atmosphere had been expected, but these were sombre tones, ones that continued to grow as they drove further, and the semblance of all as it should be was replaced by insensible degrees by something quite unfamiliar. At first it was small gaps and openings where space should not be; then timber frames and huts entirely vanished; and unfathomably, in the centre of the village, houses transformed into shells; only the church and schoolhouse seemingly intact. How was it that they did not hear about such a destructive raid?
And as questions formed upon their lips, Daphne clasped their heads in turn, gently within her hands, shaping her mouth into a silent shhhh. Taking each by the hand, she led them through barely aged wooden gates, across lightly trodden gravel paths and tiled pavements that were once unbroken; and a sign that talked of donations for the upkeep of the village; and then at last they came upon their own house, sheathed in ivy, underscored with weed.
Nothing of what they heard or saw made very much sense but somehow it did not seem to matter, for as they stood between the broken walls the house came once more into being; and, in this, Daphne knew of a shifting in time and space; and in the little sighs of contentment and smiles upon her children’s faces, a small reconciliation between the heavens and earth.
“I knew we would come home,” said Anne.