Authors: Tim Jeal
I am indebted to the late John Garnett CBE for describing to me the missions he took part in while serving in the SIS/SOE naval flotilla operating out of the Scilly Isles and the Helford River during the Second World War. The specific operations described in this novel are invented, so I am entirely responsible for any shortcomings.
When I was six, my parents moved to a house near Earl’s Court station from a nearby flat. Living next door to me was a boy whose grandfather, in the early years of the twentieth century, had retired from the Royal Navy and decided to sail around the world in his yacht. He started from Portsmouth and a week later anchored in the Helford River on the Cornish coast. Convinced that this was the most beautiful place he had ever seen, he abandoned his voyage and decided to buy several adjoining cottages that happened to be for sale in Helford village. In 1953, Coronation Year, Nick, the boy next door, whose father now owned these cottages, asked me to stay. Like his grandfather, I too, aged eight, was enchanted by the river and by sailing out towards the blue sea between Toll Point and the Dennis Head or beating upriver to Groyne Point where the water was green and deep between ancient oak woods.
A year later my parents came to look at the places I had been raving about. Liking them almost as much as I did, they bought a tiny cottage a few miles from Helford. So in years to come I would have many opportunities to sail with Nick and to explore the river’s creeks and bays. The war had ended only eight years earlier, and a salvage barge was gingerly dredging up unexploded bombs and the remains of the concrete pontoons over which the 29th US Infantry Division had driven and marched when embarking for the beaches of Normandy. In famous Frenchman’s Creek, where overhanging branches interlaced to form an impenetrable canopy overhead, SOE personnel and naval officers and men had converted fast motor vessels to make them look like French fishing boats above the waterline. At night they would take these vessels across to Brittany to pluck downed airmen from rendezvous points on the coast arranged with the Resistance, or to mingle with the French fishing fleet off Concarneau in order to collect returning agents or to despatch new ones on missions along with radios, weapons and other equipment. When Nick and I heard about these dangerous trips to France we were enthralled and fantasised for hours about what going on one of them would have been like.
Years later in the 1990s when I bought a house on the Lizard Peninsula and often visited the river again, I recalled our conversations. Thanks to my memory of them I decided to research the fake fishing boats and to put them in a story seen through the eyes of two inquisitive boys, not unlike ourselves, but old enough to have been ‘us in the 1940s’. What if our earlier imaginary selves had discovered the secret of the fishing boats? The fact that Nick’s mother had several semi-public, extra-marital affairs during our long summer holidays on the river, when his father was working in London, contributed a key ingredient to my plot. Although Nick said very little about her behaviour, I knew how angry he felt on his father’s behalf. This too would suggest an essential catalyst for action. To say more would give away too much.
When he grew up, Nick became a naval officer and served all over the world, including in the Falklands; but even though our lives took us in different directions we remained good friends, even managing an occasional sail together, until his death seven years ago.
23 July 2013
On her daily bicycle ride to the north Oxford girls’ school where she taught music and English, Andrea Pauling’s eye was caught by a newsstand headline:
DOG FIGHTS OVER DOVER
. She imagined an enormous dog, floating in the warm July air, high above the fields of Kent. Then she read:
and the surreal image vanished. She felt sick and breathless; any day now, these solid, rust-red Victorian houses in the Woodstock Road could be reduced to heaps of blackened brick.
Andrea thought of her only child, Leo, sitting in an identical building less than a mile away, stumbling his way through Julius Caesar’s
The soft downiness of his cheeks, and the way his hair curled at the nape of his neck, made her weak with love. Andrea sighed. Her son had been her best piano pupil until giving up last term. Now he didn’t draw and sing any more either. Instead, at twelve years old, machines and warships absorbed him, as they did his father. The day before, she had
been shocked by a newspaper photograph of young evacuees waiting in a train station, looking lost. This must never happen to Leo. If he were banished to a remote village, how would she ever regain the easy familiarity they had known in the past?
Shortly before Mr Chamberlain’s celebrated flight to Munich, Andrea’s father had called from Baltimore and begged her to come home to America with her English husband, Peter, and with Leo. Andrea had been tempted. Her father, now retired, had been chief of staff at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and could easily have afforded to support his daughter’s family for however long it took Peter to find a job. But knowing her husband would never leave his native country with war threatening, Andrea had refused.
When she and Peter had first met, she had been a twenty-one-year-old co-ed at Cornell. Dr Pauling had then been the youngest engineering instructor on campus; and Andrea – whose joint majors were English and Music Performance – had met him after attending one of his lectures in an interdisciplinary series on ‘Science and Culture’. Usually mistrustful of assertive male lecturers, she had found Peter’s iconoclastic polemics challenging. Even now,
sentences would come back to her: ‘Scientists test hypotheses by experiment. Poets and novelists deal in untested ambiguities that mean one thing to one reader and something else to another.’ He had spent much of this lecture mocking the literary world for its naïvety in revolting against the machine age.
was the only kind of ‘age’ Americans were ever going to know.
During questions, Andrea had stood up and asked him to name some ‘naïve’ writers. He had reeled off the Romantics and some unknown English moderns, throwing in Rimbaud and Baudelaire for good
. But why should Romantics do anything
revolt, she had asked sweetly, confusing him. In days to come they had talked at length, and, after many arguments, had fallen in love.
Their affair had been more than daring, since, as an instructor, Peter would have lost his job if news of it had ever reached the ears of faculty bosses. In retrospect his willingness to risk so much for love in that insecure era amazed Andrea, as did their liking for bootleg whisky and bathtub gin. Her favourite memories were of long walks together in the woods above Lake Cayuga, and returning, tired but contented, to Peter’s frame house overlooking one of Cornell’s deepest ravines.
They had married in 1927, and, the following year, Leo had been born. In 1930 Peter had accepted a lectureship at Oxford. Today, a decade after their departure from upstate New York, it grieved Andrea that her husband no longer treated her lovingly. In 1938 Peter had contracted polio, and now, two years later, walked with a limp severe enough to rule him out for active service.
Later that morning at school, Andrea was trying to elicit from her class of gently nurtured sixteen-
girls why they thought Hamlet had been cruel to Ophelia. Opinion divided equally between some blaming Hamlet’s immaturity and others blaming his mother. Long before the bell ended the lesson,
Andrea was thinking of Peter, who was in London being interviewed for a job with the Royal Navy’s Department of Secret Weapon Development.
From a selfish point of view, Andrea would have preferred him to remain a lecturer in the engineering department at Oxford, thus allowing them all to continue their untroubled existence. But, knowing how desperate Peter was to play a direct role in the war effort, she could not bear to think of him being rejected. To make use of his mind, the
would surely make allowances for his damaged body, perhaps letting him work a shorter week.
Peter had promised to call her during morning break, so Andrea hurried from the classroom when the lesson ended. In the staff room, she found a note already pinned up.
The absence of positive news left Andrea feeling increasingly nervous as she pedalled into the High.
At the Mitre she looked in vain for her husband in the absurdly Dickensian dining room, where she always expected red-faced hunting squires to burst in demanding devilled kidneys and claret. The head waiter directed her to a table next to a party of pink-faced young men. ‘Aesthetes’, they probably considered themselves, with their long hair and
voices. Apart from two fur-clad foreign-looking women, the rest of the diners appeared to be local
tradesmen and yeomanry officers.
One of these khaki-clad men gazed at Andrea intently enough to make her blush. She was wearing a simple gingham blouse with a plain navy waistcoat. With her red-gold hair pinned back, she reckoned she looked prim and schoolmarmish. Yet
many Englishmen seemed to like her that way. Recently, one of Peter’s engineering colleagues, after an embarrassingly inept pass, had called her MIT – Massachusetts Ice Temptress – and had had the nerve to tell her that she was known by this nickname throughout the university. She might have laughed louder if, days earlier, Leo had not asked her to stop wearing her blue silk dress with ‘the splotchy
’ when she came to his school. He’d overheard his geography teacher saying she’d looked ‘a corker’ in it on Sports Day.
Peter’s uneven step alerted Andrea before he came bustling in, crumpled Burberry over his arm, heavy briefcase bumping the backs of chairs and people. Eyes turned as this broad-shouldered muscular man lurched across the room, using his walking stick to such effect that he seemed to reach Andrea’s table in a rush of air.
Peter ordered a bottle of wine, and said nothing until he had drained a glass. Invariably late for appointments, his flushed, perspiring face showed how hard he had tried to arrive on time today. He looked so troubled that Andrea said gently, ‘Don’t worry, Peter. Just tell me.’
‘They want me to start in two weeks.’ An uneasy frown lingered on his forceful, yet kindly face.
‘Isn’t it good they want you right away?’
‘They want me to work long hours. Even at
‘But you’ll be home most week nights?’
A nervous hand dragged at his thick brown hair. ‘I wish it was the kind of work that starts at nine and ends by six.’ A gust of laughter came from the young men’s table.
‘You mean you’ll stay over in London Monday to Friday
weekends?’ In shock, she hardly noticed the waiter put down a plate of watery soup.
Peter hung his head. ‘I’m sorry, darling, but it’s top priority stuff.’
‘What stuff is that?’
‘I’m not permitted to say.’ He glanced
in the direction of the foreign women.
‘You can’t be serious, Peter,’ she cried, attracting the admiring officer’s attention.
‘Please Andrea,’ he whispered, leaning closer, ‘you must know why I can’t say anything.’
Mechanically, Andrea took several spoonfuls of soup. Three weeks ago before he’d even approached the Admiralty, Peter
told her something. He’d been thinking about a floating bridge. It hadn’t occurred to her that this casually mentioned idea might be taken up by one of the armed services as a matter of priority. One of the ‘aesthetes’ announced in an affected high-pitched voice, ‘I hate rugby and all games played by men with odd-shaped balls.’ Their laughter obliged Peter to wait before
, ‘This job really matters to me, but I haven’t accepted yet, and I won’t, unless I know I’m going to be able to go on seeing you.’
Touched, she asked, ‘Can’t you come home
‘Not really. I’m scared stupid my leg will let me down. I can’t risk putting it to any extra strain. The train delays are awful already.’
‘If you can’t manage weekdays or weekends, how does Leo get to see you?’
Peter said humbly, ‘I hope you’ll both visit
‘What if Hitler bombs London?’
‘Then I won’t expect you to bring Leo.’ He reached out a hand, and clasped one of hers. ‘But would
risk coming at weekends, darling?’
‘How could I leave him alone in Oxford?’
Peter looked at her fearfully. ‘Maybe Leo should go to a country school.’
‘Go where?’ she gasped.
‘A school in the country, far from danger.’
She fixed tragic blue-grey eyes on his. ‘Unless he goes away, we two won’t meet at all? Is that what you mean?’
As Peter nodded, she seemed to see Leo’s
face, freckles standing out darkly, so pale was he. Will he ever forgive me if I agree to this?
Peter said in his most reassuring voice, ‘Thousands of kids have been evacuated. Leo knows that.’
Andrea pushed away her soup plate. ‘I hate every goddamn thing about British boarding schools.’
‘They’re not like they used to be.’
‘They’re still obsessed with “toughness” and “
up with things”. You know they are. Kindness and sensitivity don’t come into it.’
When the waiter removed Andrea’s unfinished
soup and replaced it with a small portion of nameless fish with some boiled vegetables, she knew she would be sick if she ate any. Already at Leo’s day school, which was segregated by sex and social class, he was learning the English way of hiding his feelings, and how to do ‘the done thing’. Recently he had warned her not to ask questions when friends came to the house. ‘You’re too jolly nosy, mother.’ (He really did sometimes call her ‘mother’, and not entirely as a joke.) She had warned him that English aloofness was a thousand times worse than American
. And later he had come and said he was sorry, once more the thoughtful boy she loved, and had even shed a few tears. But away from home, in a place where callousness was praised, what would happen to him? And right now he could be in Baltimore at an ordinary high school, mixing with girls as well as boys.
For Peter, his wife’s unhappy face spoke of one thing only: the fact that she cared far more for Leo than for him. Since polio had robbed her of the man she had married, he didn’t really blame her. No active man could remain the same person after losing his ability to make love with ease and walk without stumbling. It shocked Peter that she seemed to think him guilty of sacrificing Leo for his own needs. But she’d got Leo all wrong. He wasn’t a delicate, artistic boy who would crack up away from home. On the contrary, he was the type who would grow in confidence and self-belief in a tough environment. But Andrea would never accept this in her present mood. He said emotionally, ‘I’d refuse
the best job in the world, if taking it was likely to stop me seeing you.’
‘Shall I rephrase that?’ she offered, in a paper-thin voice. ‘If I won’t let Leo go to Dotheboys Hall, you’ll say “no” to the navy. That’s blackmail, Peter. I
what the job means to you.’
‘Dearest Andrea, boarding school isn’t the hell on earth you’re making out.’ He was smiling sincerely. ‘He’ll fit in fine, I promise.’
Andrea wanted to scream her frustration. Like most of his self-satisfied male colleagues, Peter had been sent away at a tender age, and like them was unaware of any lasting ill-effects. Should these dons hear that she had stopped Peter working for the Admiralty by refusing to let Leo go away, they would think her literally crazy. Children were being sent to live with strangers in Wales and Scotland, and even Canada. Families all over Europe were being torn apart. So what could be so bad about a few terms in a well-run preparatory school? The war had weakened her position; and guilt about Peter’s disability completed her defeat. Andrea could not save Leo if, by doing so, she made Peter refuse the only kind of job likely to ease his misery at being unable to fight for his country.
She looked ahead stiffly and sighed, ‘Okay, he can go.’ Her voice seemed to come from a cold and immensely distant place, and Peter shivered as he heard it.
‘Will you ever forgive me?’ he asked, scared by her expression. Cripples are not wise – ran one of his new unwritten maxims – to push attractive spouses too
far. But despite his unease, tears of gratitude filled his eyes.
‘I need to go,’ she murmured, pushing back her chair, terrified she might sob if she stayed. She squeezed past the refugees to a muted cheer from the aesthetes.
Only when Andrea was collecting her bicycle from the alley beside St Mary’s did the reality of what had happened hit her. In a few months Peter and Leo would have gone, and she would be living alone. A tinny gramophone was bleating jazz from an upper room in Brasenose. An ache of bereavement filled her chest. She had to sit on the steps of the Radcliffe Camera until she felt strong enough to return to school.