Excited screams bounced off the trees surrounding the frozen pond. It sounded as though every child in Avonstow had gathered with the sole purpose of making as much noise as possible.
John stood to one side. Alone. Uncertain. Invisible. The outsider. He’d grown up in the village just the same as the others, but he wasn’t one of them. He had an Irish father. He shivered.
Snatches of conversation drifted across the ice, carried on the chill wind.
Go on… no, you do it… He won’t do it… too scared… Coward… Fenian…
John closed his eyes, trying to block them out. One moment his woolly hat was jammed over his eyebrows, the next, he felt it snatched off. He opened his eyes to see it lying in the middle of the ice.
Da’s going to murder me. That was a present from Maimeó.
‘Where’s your hat, Liversidge? You just gonna leave it there?’
The speaker was a short, stocky boy, the leader of the gang who made John’s life miserable.
‘Oh, leave him be, Arnie.’ Seven-year-old Alice Thompson was trying to be nice, but her kindness only made John feel worse.
Letting a girl fight your battles now? You’re a miserable little coward. He’s half your size and you let him push you around. His father’s voice boomed inside John’s head.
Slowly, John pushed away from the tree and walked tentatively towards the edge of the pond. He put a cautious foot on it. It creaked ominously but held his weight.
‘Don’t be an idiot.’ Alice’s older brother, Laurence, put a hand on John’s shoulder. John shrugged him off and took a second step towards the hat. Then a third. And a fourth. Step by step he reached the centre of the pond, bent to pick up the hat and waved it. Alice stood at the edge of the pond chewing her bottom lip. She wasn’t even looking at him. John’s triumphant smile faded a little.
Below the cheers, a loud crack went unheard. John felt the ice shift beneath him and he plunged into the freezing water. Cheers turned to screams as pain stabbed at every part of his body.
‘Go to The Curry and get his dad!’ Alice shouted. Her friend, Lily, tore off in the direction of the pub.
Alice lay on her front and slowly inched her way across the ice. As soon as she was close enough, she stretched out an arm.
‘John! Take my hand. You need to pull yourself out. I’m not strong enough.’
Teeth chattering, John did as she instructed. She shouted encouragement at him, and his numbed fingers clawed at the ice, trying to get a firm grip on something. Anything. Several times her hand closed around his wrist, only for him to slide out of her grasp. Alice simply leant further across the pond, still shouting instructions, clutching at his flailing hands.
Eventually, he managed to heave his exhausted body onto the ice beside her.
‘Come on! Don’t just lay there.’
Alice slithered back across the ice, John copying her actions. As they reached firmer ground, hands pulled him to his feet. Arnie. The younger boy looked terrified. Alice looked between the two of them, then put a small hand on John’s arm.
‘Please don’t tell on him. His dad’ll whelp him if he finds out.’
Garrett Liversidge arrived, red-faced and out of breath. He cuffed John around the head.
‘What the devil were you playing at?’
John didn’t reply. Keeping his head down he stared at the hat clenched in his hand.
‘He’s okay, Mr. Liversidge,’ Alice said. ‘It was an accident.’
‘Is that right, now?’
John nodded. ‘We were playing at the edge. I took my hat off because I was hot, and it got kicked out there by accident. Arnie was going to get it back, but I said I’d do it myself.’
John didn’t miss the black look his father shot at him. He’d be for it when they got home. Alice was the kind of child his father wanted. Someone who took charge. Someone who was strong. Instead, his father regularly raged, he’d been saddled with a snivelling brat who cried himself to sleep every night.
John’s father looked at Alice. ‘Was it you pulled him out?’
Alice shook her head. ‘He got himself out. I just helped a bit.’
Garrett looked surprised but pleased and he clapped a hand on John’s shoulder.
‘Well done, lad.’
John looked at Alice with renewed admiration, realising in that moment that she had given him a priceless gift. One he couldn’t afford to let go. He stepped towards her, out of his father’s hearing.
‘Thank you for not telling on Arnie,’ she whispered.
‘Thank you for saving me,’ he whispered back. He took her hand and squeezed it tightly. ‘I’m going to marry you.’
Alice giggled nervously and colour flushed her pale cheeks. The sight of it almost made John forget how cold he was. He clamped his teeth together to stop them chattering and moved to stand in front of Arnie. He stuck out a hand and Arnie took it cautiously.
‘Thanks for helping,’ John said loudly. Then he tugged Arnie closer, his face hardening. He lowered his voice. ‘You owe me now. There’s going to be a few changes in this village.’
John walked alongside his father. He was freezing, but he felt good. Life was going to be different from now on. Arnie was his, as was Alice. His father was going to be so proud.
The man stared at the corner of the room. The figure was there again. It never spoke, simply stood and watched. The man wanted to confront it, to ask what it wanted. But there was no point. The man knew exactly why the figure was there. They both knew what he had done. What he’d taken away from the one who now haunted his every waking moment.
‘How do I make amends?’ he whispered, almost to himself. ‘What can I do now, after so long?’
He’d loved her so much. Everything he’d done had been for her. She was the one constant in his life. He saw her everywhere, even now. Every voice was hers. Every smile. Every laugh. But she was always across a street, around a corner, always just out of reach.
Where was she now? Adam would know. Adam always knew everything. It was Adam who reminded him when he forgot things. Adam who was always so cross when he talked about the past. He didn’t want to talk to Adam. He shouted too much.
A name came to him and he frowned. That was her name. He loved the sound of it in his head, but it wasn’t the one he was looking for. It was the other one he wanted. If only he could remember what it was. Suddenly it came to him and with a trembling hand he wrote it down before he could forget it.
A nurse appeared in front of him and placed a cup of tea on the table. He reached out and closed his fingers around her wrist, pushing the paper towards her with his other hand.
‘I want to see her,’ he whispered.
The nurse looked at the name on the paper and frowned. ‘I’ll have to check with your son,’ she said.
She tried to pull her hand away. Alarmed, he clung onto it.
‘No!’ he shouted. ‘I don’t want him. I want her.’
The nurse’s eyes widened and she patted his hand reassuringly.
‘Very well if that’s what you want,’ she soothed. ‘We’ll see what we can manage.’
He laid back against the pillow, suddenly exhausted. He’d loved her beyond reason, but by the time he’d realised his mistake, she’d gone. He’d been blinded by grief and anger. He wanted to punish everyone. What had it all been for though? He’d searched for her, but it was as if she’d become invisible until years later when his father revealed he’d known all along where she was. In that moment he'd hated the old man more than he’d ever thought possible, but at least it had given him the chance to make amends. She would never know what he’d done for her, but he knew and that had to be enough.
Other faces floated into view. Younger ones this time. Not her, but close enough to make his heart ache. He didn’t want to think about that time though. He let his mind drift further back. She would come soon. She had to.
The mud bubbled as the body forced its way to the surface, the once shiny buttons of its uniform now dulled with age. The rust-coloured stain on the khaki fabric told its own tale; a tale of jealousy, of anger, of fear, but mostly a tale of love. In its pockets it still had the note. Her note.
For years the body had lain trapped by the cloying grip of the East Anglian clay, but no more. The tidal surge – the like of which had not been seen since the middle of the century – had wrested it from the embrace of the earth and thrust it to the surface. The relentless power of the sea was unforgiving, and the mud had finally been forced to relinquish that which it had held for so long. The battered coastline and the half-drowned town beyond it bore testament to the force with which the sea had attacked. A more sympathetic onlooker might have considered the residents already had enough to deal with, without the added complications of a flood and a corpse. But the body was past caring about others. It had waited long enough. Now it was free. Now, its face was exposed to the sun again. Now, its story could be told.
‘Down here for the body then?’
Hugh coughed and spat his beer over the bar in front of him.
‘Yeah, that one they found out on the flats. ’Eard you were one of those journalist types.’
‘No. I mean, I am a journalist, but I’m covering the protests.’ Hugh had come into The Queen’s Arms for some respite from the chanting, but curiosity won out over his desire to be left alone. ‘What body?’
‘Dunno.’ The man shrugged. ‘Don’t think ’e’s been identified yet. Some geezer in a uniform though if Pete’s to be believed. It was ’im what found it, you know. Proper scared the crap out of ’im. Poor bloke was only walking ’is dog. Next thing ’e knows, ’is dog’s going mental at something down on the mud. Wouldn’t leave it alone, kept pulling at it and growling. Pete ’ad to wade out there and get it – the dog I mean, not the body. It ’ad been wrapped in tarpaulin, but the dog had pulled it away from the face and there it was just starin’ up at Pete. ‘Course ’e rang the police straight away, even though it was obvious the bloke was beyond ’elp. But then ’e had to wait there with it while they came out to ’im. ’E’s not been out on the old railway line ever since.’
The man took a mouthful of his drink. ‘Says ’e’s worried what else ’e might find. I reckon ’e’s right to be an’ all. I’ve not seen a flood like that since I was a nipper. 1953 was the last proper big ’un and ’ow that body di’n’t come up in that one is beyond me. It must ’ave been wedged good and proper.’
‘Where could I find this… Pete, did you say his name was?’ Hugh asked. He’d had to fight to be allowed to come and cover the protest in situ, so if he could get another, more headline-grabbing story while he was down here, his insistence on travelling would be justified and his editor would be happier, especially if there was a possibility of murder being involved.
His companion nodded over to a table in the corner. A middle-aged man sat alone nursing a whisky glass. It didn’t look as though it was his first of the afternoon. Hugh picked up his pint glass, drained the last mouthful, then ordered a second as well as a whisky.
‘Thanks for the tip.’
Handing over the coins, he swept the two glasses off the bar and headed for the corner table.
Sergeant William Morrison jumped down from the train and surveyed the scene in front of him. He wasn’t filled with inspiration. The limp flowers in the hanging baskets bowed their heads as though weighed down and oppressed by their surroundings. Scalloped wooden boards, which had once been white, drooped from the platform roof. Pale green paint peeled in long strips from the fence that marked the station boundary.
The slow train journey had not improved the bad mood he’d begun it with and William’s face darkened further as he took in more of the chaos around him. Men were disembarking from the train but not in the orderly way he expected. Kit bags were being thrown down into waiting arms as the men milled about, shouts echoing all along the length of the platform and he could feel a headache beginning to thud behind his eyes. He’d been plagued with them ever since…No. He couldn’t think about that. Not here. Not now. Closing his eyes for a moment he took a deep steadying breath, pushing away the thoughts of mud and blood, before turning to issue orders to the men closest to him.
‘Alright you lot! Enough lollygagging. Get a move on, will you. I want this lot up at the camp ASAP.’
There was a noticeable increase in speed and the flying bags and equipment became blurs of green and brown against the grey sky. William had been in Europe long enough to know that even in summer it was rare to see skies as blue as those of home. Some of his men however, had come almost straight off the boat and onto the trains that had carried them through the English countryside, to this remote spot on the east coast of Essex.
‘Does the sun ever shine here, Sarge?’ The young corporal looked gloomy as he glanced up at the unpromising sky.
A brief smile flickered across Will’s face as he conjured up an image of home: the house on the outskirts of town with its neat white fence that bordered the riotous colour of the pink rock lilies, kangaroo paws and grevillea his mother had first planted when she’d arrived in Melbourne as a young bride. His father always said the garden reminded him of his wife as she had been then – bright and full of life. Not that she wasn’t now, but having children was enough to drain anyone of their vitality, especially when one of them was off fighting a war thousands of miles from home. He’d taken care to keep his letters home light and carefree, sharing none of his recent trouble with his family. What good would it have done them? They’d only worry more if they knew his heart and mind were broken and that he wanted nothing more than to crawl beneath the faded blankets of his childhood and feel the soothing touch of his mother’s hand on his forehead. There would be time enough for truth-telling when he got home.
A flying bag clipped his hat on its journey from train to platform and he scowled.
‘Watch what you’re doing, can’t you?’
The boy grinned, managing to look both amused and abashed and William had to look away. He can’t be more than about nineteen. William sighed; the six years between them felt like ten times that. He’ll lose that innocence once his babyface is streaked with blood and the guts of his best friend.
Forcing himself back to the present, William looked at Corporal Atkins who was still examining the sky.
‘Not very often, Corporal, no.’
With that, William marshalled his men into as much order as was possible in the limited space, then led them off the platform and out onto the open ground in front of the station.
‘Right lads,’ he said. ‘We’re here as representatives of our country and our army. Let’s show the locals we’ve something to be proud of. Form up and get ready to move out. Major Darrant will be waiting for us at the camp.’
He waited until the last kit bag had been shouldered, then prepared to lead his men onto the road, conscious that small groups of locals were beginning to gather, wide-eyed at the spectacle of foreign troops marching through their village.
‘Eyes front! Quick march!’
As the men kept time behind him, William kept his eyes fixed firmly on the road ahead of him, determined not to allow his gaze to slip sideways to take in the groups of giggling girls who lined the route. When he’d first arrived in Britain, he’d been warned about the effects of a uniform – and especially a foreign uniform – on women. He’d welcomed it then. Now, he knew that the type of woman it attracted was not the kind of woman he wanted to know. Not that it mattered anymore. Once the depth of his nightmares about the mud-drenched hell that had been the Somme became apparent, they were scared off anyway. Experience had taught him that too. William prided himself on learning from his mistakes. He’d vowed never to be taken in like that again. He was going to keep his head down and his eyes closed to anything in a dress.
A bright colour fluttering at the edge of his sight caught his attention; his eyes slid involuntarily towards it. It was a girl’s skirt caught in a gust of wind. She wasn’t waving or smiling, just thoughtfully observing the passing parade, her arms folded tightly across her chest,