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Authors: Robert Edric

Peacetime (6 page)

BOOK: Peacetime
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He invited her into the tower. At first, she declined, but he knew that she would allow herself to be persuaded.

Once inside, in the upper room, she went first to the desk upon which his charts and plans lay, and from there to one of the windows which afforded the tower an all-round view. Part of the airfield was also visible from the room, and she stood for several minutes looking out over this.

‘Is this your first time in here?' He knew by the ease with which she moved from window to window that it was not.

‘We used to come in here all the time.' She meant herself and the other children. ‘Until you arrived.'

He began to explain to her why he had chosen the
tower as the base for his work, but she showed little interest in what he said. She went to look over the houses and the sea beyond. There were men on the beach. A solitary woman hung washing on a line. It was a still day and the water was calm, its waves barely breaking against the shore.

‘Is that your mother?' he asked her, indicating the distant woman.

She nodded once, watching the woman intently.

‘It was good to meet her at last,' he said.

‘Why?' She spoke sharply, causing him to remain silent. ‘She said after you'd gone that you thought you were better than us and that we could do without your charity.'

The remark surprised him. He could not believe it was what Elizabeth Lynch truly thought of him. ‘She didn't say either of those things,' he said.

Her averted glance confirmed his guess, and he wondered what pleasure she had gained from the lie, why she had insisted on telling it knowing he would not believe her.

‘No, but
she
said them.'

‘Mrs Armstrong?'

‘Who else?'

‘So what was the point of your lie?'

‘Why does it matter who said it?'

‘Of course it matters. I'm going to be here for the next two months.' He paused. ‘I need to know who my friends are.'

She crossed the room to stand beside him.

‘In that case, my mother said I was to come and thank you for what you brought us. She said I was ill-mannered when you came.'

‘I should have given the things to you when you were alone. They were yours.'

‘My reward,' she said, adding a cold emphasis to the word.

‘Is that why you're here?' he said. ‘To thank me?'

‘Is that what you want?'

He filled a kettle from one of the canisters of water and offered her a drink. She accepted and they sat together at the table.

It was warm in the room. He had tried to open the windows, but most of the panes no longer moved, their winding mechanism seized fast through corrosion and disuse.

‘Are these the houses?' she asked him, indicating the dwellings on his chart.

He glanced quickly at the map to ensure that no indication of their future destruction was marked across them.

She turned the sheet to face her, genuinely excited, it seemed to Mercer, at each of the surrounding features she was able to identify. She aligned the chart to the horizon outside and then set about naming everything she saw. He left her to make the tea.

When he returned with the cups and saucers – there had been a case from the quartermaster containing forty-eight of each of these – he found her peering closely at the configuration of the drains and sluices flowing beneath the road in the direction of the town.

‘They've all got names,' she said disbelievingly.

‘Most features have.'

‘Not out here. They usually get called by the last thing that happened there.'

‘It's a common enough way of doing things.' He rattled the cup at her and she took it from him, holding the saucer in both hands.

‘Sorry there's nothing more practical,' he said.

She studied the two pieces of cheap crockery and the spoon he had laid beside the cup.

‘Why did the all-knowing Mrs Armstrong think I was being high-handed?'

‘Who cares? She would have said the same whatever you'd done. She reckons that whatever you say, you're here to knock down the houses and kick us all out.'

It was not part of his work to destroy the dwellings, but he could not deny that their demolition was included in the future plans for the site. The houses had originally been built for the lighthouse-keepers and the crew of the earlier lifeboat that had once, briefly, been stationed there. Now neither existed, and the houses – costly to maintain and repair in such an isolated place – were surplus to all practical requirements.

‘She worries where she'll go.'

‘Where would any of you go?' he said.

‘You say that as though it would be a problem,' she said. She set her cup down.

‘Would you move into town?'

‘I'd keep going until I reached somewhere worth living,' she said. ‘It can't all have been bombed to rubble.'

‘A lot of it was,' he said. ‘It's going to be a long time before a lot of people get back on their feet.'

‘But they
are
building it all again?'

‘Of course they are.' A month earlier, he had been in London, living in the home of his dead parents.

She considered this for a moment. ‘So what you're saying is that it's the people like us who are at the bottom of the list for getting new houses.'

‘Not necessarily. It's just that—'

‘Just that nobody cared much about us before the war and nobody cares much about us now.'

There was nothing he could say to her. The crockery
rattled in her hand and she separated the two pieces to stop this.

‘I probably know as little as the rest of you,' he said. He slapped his hand on the charts. ‘All I know for certain is that the new Coastguard Station has to be built. Beyond that …'

After several minutes, she said, ‘I know,' and nothing more.

They listened to the machinery and the shouting of the men beneath them.

‘The house is going to be crowded when your father comes home,' he said eventually, watching closely for her response.

She considered this before answering him. ‘No more crowded than it was before,' she said.

It occurred to him that the house contained only two bedrooms, and that she shared one of these with her small brother, that she had shared it as a girl upon her father's departure, and that she shared it with him still.

He considered all this without speaking, and when he next looked at her, she was watching him closely.

‘What?' he said.

She said nothing, and he thought for a moment that she had seen something through the window behind him which had attracted her attention.

‘You don't have to pretend,' she said eventually.

‘Pretend about what?'

‘About him.' She meant her father.

‘What am I pretending?' he said.

‘That he isn't in an Army prison and that he wasn't sent there because he tried to run away.'

‘How long have you known?' he said.

She shrugged.

‘Who told you?'

‘Nobody
told
me. They didn't need to. You only have to listen to what they say to each other. You can hear people whispering through those walls. I've known for about a year. I was there when they came for him.
She
said they'd just come to give him a lift back to his camp, but I saw how they held him and watched him. She said it was nothing, and at first I believed her. I went on believing her because it seemed the best thing to do.'

‘And afterwards?'

‘It stopped making sense. I looked on a map to find out where he was. She never went to see him.'

‘Perhaps it wasn't allowed.'

‘What, not even after the war was over?'

‘She has no idea,' he said.

‘That I worked it all out? I sometimes even think that she's convinced herself he's still off serving like an ordinary soldier somewhere.'

‘It can't have been easy for you,' he said.

The remark surprised her, as though her own feelings on the matter had never before been thought worthy of consideration or even remark.

‘Why don't you tell her that you know?'

She pursed her lips and feigned indifference, but he saw by her eyes that this pretence only masked her uncertainty.

‘She might appreciate knowing that you know. You might be able to share—'

‘I don't want to share anything with her. She's had years to tell me. It was up to her. She's the one who went on pretending.'

Mercer remained silent, allowing this sudden and uncontainable outburst to clear the room. She sat shaking in her seat.

‘And besides,' she said. ‘It's too late. He'll be back in
a few weeks. She's had years to tell me. How is she going to do it now? What would be the point of it all?'

He sensed then, in those few remarks, that this unwillingness to enter her mother's confidence, or to take the woman into hers, was some uncertain form of punishment: she was deliberately keeping herself apart from the woman; deliberately withholding from her the support and reassurance her confession and confidences might bring. This understanding was quick in coming, and he was careful to keep it from her.

‘You and your father always got on well together,' he said.

‘She tell you that, did she?'

He could not tell her that he had heard it from Jacob Haas.

‘I think so. Or perhaps it's just an impression I got from you.'

‘He used to take me places with him when I was a girl. She was bad after Peter was born, never the same. She was in hospital for a long time. Peter came home, but she stayed. He said she was staying away deliberately, that there was nothing wrong with her, that everything was on his shoulders. And when she did finally come back to us, it was different. He said Peter was a mistake, an accident, and that everything had been ruined. Peter was sick a lot, in and out of hospital. We had visitors, a nurse or something, who used to come and take him away with her. He kicked up a fuss at that and told her once that if she ever let Peter out of her sight again he'd kill her. He didn't mean it – it was just what he used to say.'

‘Were the other women able to help her?'

‘Some of them. It was me, mostly. She told me to look after him. I was nine when he was born.'

‘You must have resented the intrusion.'

She looked at him as though he had spoken to her in another language. ‘Is that what I did?'

‘Is that why you want to punish her now – by pretending not to know about your father?'

She locked her hands and smiled. ‘I'd never thought of it like that,' she said, but she made it clear to him that even if this were true – which he doubted – then she was thinking of it now, and savouring all she imagined.

‘I don't believe you could be so deliberately cruel,' he said. He held her gaze to convince her that he meant this, and to allow her a course out of her forced and malicious reverie.

The smile fell from her face. ‘A plus b plus c,' she said. ‘It's never really that simple, is it?'

‘Not in my experience.' He ran his hand over the charts. ‘To read all the books, you'd imagine that the fastest, shortest route between two fixed points was always a straight line.'

He sensed that she appreciated this deeper understanding between them, and the opportunity to explore further her own imperfect assessment of the situation and how she felt.

He refilled their cups, but by then the tea was lukewarm and neither of them drank it.

They were interrupted several minutes later by the voices of two men shouting up the stairs demanding to see him. He told her to wait where she sat while he went down to them.

There was a problem with an excavator. A buried concrete platform had been uncovered where none was marked on the charts. He asked them to explain where this was, what work it held up, and then told them to smash through it. They complained at the
extra work. They wanted him to accompany them to the site and see for himself, but he refused, telling them he was busy in the tower.

The men left and he went back up to her. She told him she had to leave.

‘You can always come back,' he told her.

‘I know,' she said. ‘I was sent to ask you if you wanted to come and have something to eat with us one night.'

‘I'd like that.'

‘I told her you'd make an excuse, or that if you did come, it would only be because you felt obliged.'

‘Tell your mother I accept with pleasure.'

‘I knew that's what you'd say.'

‘Then you were right, weren't you.' He saw immediately how he had been manipulated by her, and how this simple invitation had been made to stand for so much more.

‘I'll tell her you'll come in a few days, shall I? You'll need to check your social diary.' She held out her hand to him and he took it. Grasping his, she said, ‘You don't have any spare cigarettes, do you?'

‘For your mother?'

She made it clear to him that this was not her intention. ‘Of course for my mother. You didn't think I'd want them for myself, did you?' She released her hold on him.

A pack on the table contained only two or three and he gave this to her. ‘I'm giving you these for her.'

‘Of course. There, you've said it now.' She took them from him. And then she picked up the box of matches which lay beside them and loudly counted three from it.

She descended the stairs, and he followed her down.

At the door, she paused and looked outside before leaving.

7

The gun platforms had been installed at Fleet Point during the spring and summer of 1940, when the threat of invasion, albeit elsewhere, had seemed most likely. The blueprints for this work, and the plans and documents accompanying these, were forwarded to Mercer several months prior to his own arrival. He was surprised to see how substantial the structures were, and how much additional work had been undertaken to protect them from the sea. No one can have truly believed that this part of The Wash coast was ever under threat of invasion, but one of the documents suggested that a diversionary assault might be launched here precisely because it would be considered so unlikely. Additionally, this same anonymous report suggested, coastal shipping in the North Sea, increasingly valuable now that the Atlantic was blockaded, might be protected by the guns from any marauding craft this far north. Mercer considered this a far more valid reason for the guns being sited there, but saw, too, how instrumental this deceit of invasion
was in getting the work carried out. There was no mention in the report of how that same endangered and unarmed shipping might be protected to the north of the guns' range, where they would be exposed and unprotected for at least a further hundred miles until reaching the mouth of the Humber.

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