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Authors: Kate Dunn

The Line Between Us

BOOK: The Line Between Us
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© Kate Dunn 2016

 

Kate Dunn has asserted her rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.

 

First published 2016 by Endeavour Press Ltd.

 

 

To my son Jack,

who could read maps from an early age and set the course for both of us.

 

 

Table of Contents

Preface

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

CHAPTER THIRTY

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT

CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE

CHAPTER FORTY

CHAPTER FORTY-ONE

CHAPTER FORTY-TWO

CHAPTER FORTY-THREE

CHAPTER FORTY-FOUR

CHAPTER FORTY-FIVE

CHAPTER FORTY-SIX

CHAPTER FORTY-SEVEN

CHAPTER FORTY-EIGHT

CHAPTER FORTY-NINE

CHAPTER FIFTY

CHAPTER FIFTY-ONE

CHAPTER FIFTY-TWO

CHAPTER FIFTY-THREE

AUTHOR’S NOTE

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

 

 

Preface

 

Western France, June 1940

I used to dream that one day I would call you by your name: Ella, I would say, my Ella, but I’ve had all the dreams knocked out of me. Only people who have never been to hell can say they’ve been to hell and back. There is no return journey, as far as I can see. They are calling what happened at Dunkirk a re-embarkation. It didn’t feel like that to me. Why can’t we call things by their proper names and not use pretty phrases? My unit managed to get as far as Abbeville, while the rest of the British Expeditionary Force was falling over itself to reach the coast. Retreat is what I call it. That’s the view from here.

Not everyone managed to re-embark. Our lot received orders to evacuate westwards across France. Progress was painful and slow because the roads were jammed with refugees. Women and children mostly, and the elderly. Some had prams or wheelbarrows piled with their belongings, some had suitcases, a few just had bundles tied with cloth. The whole of Brittany was clogged with people on the move, trailing their belongings and all that was left of their old lives past abandoned buildings, looted homesteads and villages in tatters. When we got to the outskirts of St Nazaire we were ordered to disable all our vehicles and proceed on foot.

The War Office sent two liners to bring us home. They were moored out in the estuary and a couple of destroyers ferried troops out to them, but they had to leave stern first as there wasn’t much room to manoeuvre and they were held up by the tides as well, so it took a heck of a long of time. Two of the men in my platoon – Cadwalladr and Sweeney – and me, were some of the last to leave shore and when we pulled up alongside, one of the crew shouted down to us that they were overloaded and couldn’t take anyone else. The captain of the destroyer we were on called up that a couple of hundred more wouldn’t make any difference either way and as it was hardly the time or place for a lengthy conversation, in the end they agreed to let us on. We clambered up the netting on the side of the boat. I haven’t much of a head for heights, so I counted the number of rivets in the metal as I climbed, not looking down at the water, which seemed a long, long way below.

The atmosphere on board was so merry. An RAF chap just ahead of us knelt down and kissed the deck. It was like the start of the summer holidays; everybody was so excited at the prospect of seeing home again. We were assigned places on the aft deck – there wasn’t room for us anywhere else.

The
Lancastria
was one of the Cunard fleet. She’d been taking holidaymakers to the Bahamas when the war started. I’d never seen such luxury. Cadwalladr and I dumped our kit and went off to explore. It was difficult to get around in the crush, but we made it to the dining-room, which had arches and columns and waiters doing silver service with damask napkins on their arms. We had bangers and mash. After a month of sleeping in school halls and cellars and sometimes in ditches, with only scanty army rations, it was like heaven on earth.

Things got a little jumpy while we were eating – some Jerry planes flew over and let loose a couple of bombs and one of the crew told us that the other liner we were to sail with, the
Oronsay
, took a direct hit that knocked out her bridge.

I remember thinking how lucky I was to be on the
Lancastria
. I remember thanking my lucky stars.

After that we expected to be under way at any moment, but there were rumours of U Boats further out to sea and the captain wanted to wait for an escort, so there was a slight delay. Cadwalladr went off to find the ship’s barber. I remember him saying he wouldn’t feel human until he’d had a haircut and a shave. He was laughing as he wandered off.

I never saw him again.

I’d heard they were giving out chocolate at the Purser’s office, so I went and joined the queue for that. There were some refugee children waiting in line and I got talking to an old lady whose husband had been a chocolatier in Vienna before the war. She said he was Jewish and that they’d been arrested trying to leave on forged papers. He bribed the guards to let her go. The last time she saw him he was being marched away from her at gun-point.

She was telling me all of this when there was an almighty crack and the ship rocked. I felt a flush of absolute terror run through me and broke out in a sweat, but there was a large cheer and the lads up on deck shouted, “They couldn’t hit us if they tried!” The bomb, or whatever it was, had fallen in between us and the other liner, the
Oronsay
.

I knew I had to get some air. My heart was pounding and I couldn’t breathe. I made my apologies to the old lady and started to shoulder my way out of the queue. I hammered up the stairs, pushing my way past people who were coming down. Somebody grabbed me by the arm and said, “Don’t go up there, there are six German planes in the estuary, we’ve been ordered below because it’s safer.”

I didn’t stop to let him finish.

There was a bren gun mounted at the back of our ship – the only one we had – and as I flung myself out on deck it started firing.

“Got the bastard,” somebody shouted.

But they were wrong. They were wrong. The bastard got us.

He erupted out of the sun, a lone airman. The rest of his squadron were banking back up, having dropped their payload near the docks, but he set his plane in a dive straight at us. I thought he was coming for me, that he was zero-ing in on me. I felt like an insect pinned to the deck of that ship. At the last second he reared up out of the dive and spilled his bombs all over us.

I wouldn’t have thought a boat as big as that could shudder. But she did. She shuddered for all of us, for what was about to become of us all.

From where I was standing it looked as though a bomb had gone straight down the funnel; another hit us in the side and the third and fourth landed on her bows. Smoke and flames started belching out further down the ship and straight away she began to list. I was standing close to a ventilation shaft and I grabbed the rim of that to save myself. I could hear men screaming. One of the bombs ruptured the boilers in the engine room and the men down there were being scalded alive. The screams I heard from inside that shaft have been sounding in my head, filling every silence.

Somebody shouted an order for everyone who could to rush to the port side of the boat to try and right her, and I managed to make it to the rail. Already I could see men in the water. They were jumping from portholes below me. The horizon was crooked now, smoke blotting out the sight of land. My feet skidded out from underneath me as the deck lurched further. I hung onto the rail as if it was the only thing left that mattered.

I didn’t have a life jacket and I couldn’t swim, anyway.

The lifeboats were hanging at an awkward angle as the ship tilted; they didn’t look as if they would be much use at all. The fellow next to me removed his spectacles and put them in his pocket and then he jumped, his legs bicycling the air.

That started it. Lots of the men around me started to jump, some of them hitting the hull lower down as it heaved itself up from the sea. I couldn’t make myself, I just couldn’t. I was frozen with fear, and bewilderment; and nothing that was happening seemed real. I knew I had to do something, but the thought was like an echo of something urgent, like something important that I had forgotten to attend to. The only thing that mattered was gripping the rail.

And then I let go. I didn’t give it much consideration; it was almost as if my fingers decided for me. I skimmed down the first few feet of the deck, which must have been sloping at about forty-five degrees. All kinds of objects were bouncing and falling around me, somebody’s kit bag clobbered me across the back, slamming me into a stanchion. I edged my way round it. I was frightened that I would be flipped right off the deck and over the side, so I pitched myself in the direction of a bench, from the bench to a locker and from the locker to the starboard railing.

Fifty feet below the iron cliff of the deck, the water was like molasses. A fuel tank had been hit and black cataracts of oil were filling the sea. One of the lifeboats, crammed to the gunnels with women and children, was being winched down; people were climbing over each other to get into another. A chain of men were manhandling life rafts over the side, careless of the knockout blows they dealt to the fellows already in the water. The first lifeboat jammed halfway down and there was panic as the children started screaming. I saw the white face of the old lady from the chocolate queue. She was trying to calm the little girl sitting next to her as the boat swung back and forth. Crew members were hanging off the rope, struggling to free it. In the end they gave up. Someone slashed the line with a knife and the boat plummeted vertically into the sea. None of those terrified kiddies stood a chance.

It was every man for himself after that. The stern of the
Lancastria
was rising as the ship twisted further into the water. Someone had lowered a rope over the side and it hung straight as a plumb line a dozen feet beyond my reach. Around me, men with life belts were hurling themselves over. I think I saw Sweeney go. He was holding his rifle as he jumped, though I don’t believe that in the circumstances he’d have been court martialled for leaving it behind.

I leapt from the vast slant of the ship. I thought I was going to die. I don’t know how I reached the rope, but I did. I slid down so fast I took the skin right off my hands. I dropped the last twenty feet, smashing through the waves, down through the oil; I could feel the abrasion of bubbles stinging my face, the heaviness of my clothes, the relief …

Down I went, and down, and down, and down. I could have gone on falling through the water forever, the weight of it pressing me lower and lower, pressing the breath from my body, squeezing the strength from me, dragging the life right out of me. I felt I was plunging to a place that had no prospects and no memories.

But then I started to remember …

BOOK: The Line Between Us
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