The Major says we need to build up our population again and that suits some of the town girls. Girls here are encouraged to marry young and start a family straight away. One girl I talk to in the market is having a baby soon. She doesn’t know who the dad is but everyone is really pleased for her anyway. She will get a house and be looked after until the baby is a year old. Then she’ll start work again and the baby will be cared for by an auntie. Not a real auntie, but a woman whose job it is to look after small children – anybody’s. The girl’s name is Ronnie. She’s younger than me, by the look of her.
Sometimes boats arrive to trade. Usually we recognise the boat and one of ours goes out to see what they’ve got, but we never let them land. There’s still a lot of distrust. Our fridges and freezers are known far and wide and we’ve had visitors from as far away as North Africa. They bring us cotton cloth and oranges and dates and they take away our wool and apples and fridges.
Anchored by the outer harbour wall is an old navy minesweeper. The Endeavour’s been there since the Great Death. What was left of her crew brought her in, tied her to the harbour wall and opened the sea cocks. The engine was ruined after they scuttled her, but even today the guns are still in good working condition. Some of the old crew live on her with their families and keep everything shipshape. They even re-floated her a few years ago. Those guns help keep us safe. That, and the marshes.
After the meeting, Alice, Rob, Terry and Don returned to the Seamarsh house. In the large kitchen of 38 Walsham Road Rob busied himself with preparing afternoon tea. In the garden Terry and her best friend Emma played families with Raffles, a large black and white tom cat who had attached himself to the family several years ago. “Another stray to add to the collection,” Vic Seamarsh had said at the time. Alice looked out of the window to see Emma pushing Raffles round in a bassinet dolls’ pram while Terry busied herself setting up a picnic, complete with plastic tea set, on the lawn. Like a scene from the pages of Alice in Wonderland, numerous dolls and teddies had been arranged around a red and white chequer table cloth. It reminded Alice of just how young Terry still was.
“Try some of my fruit bread, Mr Donaldson,” Rob said, and held out a plate piled with buttered slices of mahogany brown loaf. “I’ve used some of the dried fruit I made last summer. What do you think?”
The loaf looked rich enough to be Dundee cake. Don picked up a slice and bit into it. The fruit flavours sang of summer – cherry, grape, apple and something that tasted like citrus, but couldn’t possibly be. He eyed Rob and tilted his head questioningly. Rob grinned. “It’s lemon peel. I’ve grown a small lemon tree in the glasshouse. Dad brought the seedling back from Holland. God knows how it got there. It produced a couple of small fruits last summer.”
“Rob, you are a marvel, a domestic genius. Now if only you could magic up a pot of Indian tea I would declare this the best afternoon tea I’ve had in twenty years.”
Although he tried to hide it Rob was unquestionably pleased with this praise and a smile flicked on and off across his normally serious face. Rob was six months younger than Alice and was, like Adam, the natural child of Vic and Marsha. In appearance he resembled his mum more than his dad. He was already a well-built lad and would need to watch out later in life that his body didn’t turn to fat, as his mother Marsha's had so plainly done. The fashion in Goodfleet was for boys to have cropped hair, but, Rob being Rob, he wore his long. When he was cooking the straight, dark brown fringe had a tendency to flop in his eyes and when he regarded you it was like he was looking from behind a fly screen. “And what do you think, Sis? Good?”
Alice took a bite. “Mmm, it’s the smell that hits you first; so rich and exotic. It’s how I imagine a tropical island might smell; pineapples and coconuts and bananas. Have you ever been somewhere like that, Don?”
“Me? No. Never went that far south. Maybe a couple of trips to the land of Waki Baki in my youth, I vaguely seem to remember.”
Don chuckled. “Nowhere. It’s an old joke. Best talk to your dad if you want stories about exotic places. Vic is very well-travelled; as no doubt you know. I did Europe as a student and once had a family holiday in Greece, but mostly it was Bournemouth or Scarborough or Scotland. I got to know this island pretty well in my travelling days and I’ve never regretted it. At the time I thought it was the best place on earth to live. Maybe it still is, who knows? But my travels never smelled like this. Fish and chips, more like.”
Alice and Rob laughed at this and in their warm kitchen on that May afternoon, the situation, grim as it was, began to feel somehow less serious. The detail in everything began to return: the clouds were back in the sky; Wilbur, an ancient tabby and the Seamarsh’s other cat, reappeared on his chair (although he’d probably been there asleep all along, just unnoticed); the old railway clock above the Welsh dresser resumed its loud, slow tick.
“I’ll make some more tea for Mum and catch her up with events,” Rob said, and rose from the long table that filled the central space in the kitchen.
Occupying one corner of the long table, Alice and Don sat facing one another. “So, nothing’s changed but everything’s changed, it seems,” Alice sighed.
“You’ve summed it up nicely, Alice,” Don replied. “Nobody knows how this will end, but we can be pretty sure that life will never be the same again.”
“Did you believe what that man told us, that they mean us no harm?”
“We come in peace, my arse,” Don replied with a world-weary stare into the middle distance. “They weren’t exactly palsy-walsy in the Town Hall, were they? I think it’s fairly safe to assume that they are essentially a bunch of cold-blooded killers who will do whatever is necessary to secure their objectives.”
“Are you worried?”
Don drew in his lips and puffed out his eyes. “Well, I suppose I should be; I suppose we all should be, but to be honest I can’t be bothered. If you think about it, in a way we’ve been living on borrowed time for years. It’s always been Wendon, hasn’t it? I mean from where any trouble would come. The thing is, we’ve known about the threat for ages, and lo and behold, here it is, and yet people act surprised. We tried our best to ignore it but it didn’t work, did it? Always confront your demons. Whoever made up that stupid piece of advice ‘get thee behind me, Satan’ was an idiot.”
“Just hearing you say that makes me feel a bit better, like we have a choice in how we react to all this. But how do you do it, how do you make yourself not worry?”
Don smiled his kind smile and patted Alice’s hand. “It’s an age thing, probably. Anyone my age has seen an awful lot of death. The past decade has seemed to me like something of a miracle, like sheltering in the eye of a hurricane, a collective holding of the breath. And over the years people have put the suffering and brutality and loss of earlier times to the back of their life and got on with the business of living. In a way, it’s how we should always be; let our hopes die and live like tomorrow will never come.”
Rob had prepared a tray of tea for Marsha. “Alice, open the door for me will you?” he said, and left with a full tray that he knew would assure him a hug from his mum, provided Miss Havisham was asleep.
“So, do your best not to worry, sweetie, and I’ll see you tomorrow at school? Not for much longer though, eh?” Don said finally. He stood and picked up his cap. It never reached his head. Without warning, a shattering crash from the room above cleaved the day in two. A shout of “No! No! Oh no!” rang out, followed by a howl of desperate despair, then a rapid drum of feet pounding down the steep stairs accompanied by a long sickening yodel of anguish, which only stopped when the door burst open and Rob, eyes streaming, framed the doorway.
“It’s Mum!” he wailed. “They shot her! They’ve killed her! Oh Alice, she's dead!”
Don reacted first. “I’ll take Terry and Emma for a walk,” he said calmly, standing and pulling his jacket from the back of the chair.
Alice had also stood and moved instinctively to hug and comfort the sobbing Rob, saying small soothing things as one did to a young child who had fallen and grazed a knee. She nodded to Don, who put on his jacket and cap.
“Oh, God. I’m so sorry.” he said simply, then he turned and left by the back door, leaving the two children consoling one another in their misery.
That evening the children ate in silence. Terry had ‘been allowed’ to have tea at Emma’s house as a treat, and had yet to be told of Marsha’s death. The best place to do this would be at the Library, with Don present, Alice had decided. The calmness and order of that space would hopefully help her to break this terrible news, and there was nothing to be gained by letting Terry see what had happened. Adam had taken the news as Adam took pretty much everything – calmly and outwardly stoical. Alice knew from past experience that it would take him a while to move from that position. “Do you want to see her?” Alice asked, after Adam had sat for a while. “I’ll come with you if you like.”
Adam shook his head. “Not tonight,” he murmured, almost inaudibly. He pinched the bridge of his nose and exhaled deeply and then stood, carefully avoiding Alice’s eyes and instead moving over to the window. He looked out into the garden. Rob was standing in one of the flower beds, stripped to the waist and hacking furiously at a half-unearthed apple tree stump. Adam estimated he was probably expending about five times as much energy as was actually needed for the job as he swung the mattock furiously again and again, his boy’s face red and sweating and desperate. Adam could easily imagine what Rob must be thinking.
It had already begun to get dark when there was a knock on the front door. Adam answered it, to be confronted by four soldiers carrying a long package. “We’ve come for the body,” said one of them unceremoniously, and without waiting for a reply pushed past him and mounted the stairs, followed closely by the other three. Alice and Adam followed, and watched as the men unpacked the parts of a plywood coffin and fitted them together. Only one of the soldiers, the eldest one, seemed to know what he was doing and gave orders to the other three who, Alice noted, were little more than boys. They stayed long enough to witness the grisly process of trying to fit Marsha’s stiff, heavy corpse into the assembled box.
The struggle to get the coffin down the stairs was almost comical, like a sketch from a Laurel and Hardy film Alice had once watched at the Library. In the end they let the box slide down the longest flight of stairs, slowing its descent with two ropes. When it had been loaded on to the lorry the soldier in charge ordered the men into the back and then marched across to the house. He held up a list attached to a clipboard and ran his finger down the page. Then he looked at the house number and finally at Alice. “The Seamarsh family will take in one soldier,” he barked. “They will be responsible for housing and feeding him. Any questions?”
Alice had a hundred questions, like ‘why us?’ and ‘for how long?’ and ‘what is his name?’, but she satisfied herself with just one: “When will he arrive?”
“Wednesday, seventeen hundred hours, when he goes off duty,” the sergeant replied. Then he turned and bawled at the lorry “Madden! Show yourself!”
The hairless, moon face of a boy no more than fifteen years old appeared at the tailgate of the lorry. The sergeant pointed at the house. “This will be your digs, Madden. Come here after patrol with your kit and this um ...“ He consulted his list again. “Miss Seamarsh will show you your room.”
“Aye aye, Sarg.” The soldier replied and then disappeared once more into the back of the vehicle.
The lorry started up and after a noisy meshing of gears slowly moved away up the street. Alice turned to go inside but paused when she spotted Terry and Emma at the top of the road. She watched as Emma peeled off and opened her front gate. Terry skipped the rest of the way down Walsham Road, swinging her bag of toys and singing something Alice could not make out. “What did they want?” Terry said when she reached the front steps.
“Oh, they just told us we’d be putting up a soldier. It’s just for a while.”
Terry folded her arms and stuck out her bottom lip, her face mimicking cartoon indignation. “What? That’s so unfair! Why us? We don’t have any spare rooms, do we? And I’m not moving out of mine for some poxy soldier,” she said, her fists clenched and her voice trembling with outrage.
Alice held Terry's shoulders and kissed her forehead. “Don’t worry; you won’t have to move rooms. We’ll find somewhere for him.”
The following day was the Wednesday Market. There were fewer stalls than was customary but most people had taken the Commander’s words at their face value and were attempting to carry on with their lives as normally as possible while being watched by the soldiers and sailors of an enemy force whose intentions were far from benign. Terry and Alice had been at their stall for several hours already, but sales were practically non-existent. The food sellers were busy, however. The bread and cheese stalls had been completely emptied by eight o’clock and the fish stalls were still mobbed as people fought for the remaining plaice and herring and mackerel. Terry had soon tired of hanging about doing nothing and had whined so much that Alice had asked the next-door stallholders to mind theirs while they went for a walk.
Inevitably, the girls drifted in the direction of the harbour and eventually halted in front of the Esplanade hotel. They sat and rested on the hotel wall for a while and watched with interest the comings and goings of the invaders. The dock gates had been closed for the first time in Alice’s memory. Nobody gained access without first presenting their identity card at the guard hut that had been set up next to the pedestrian gate. Even then, few gained access.
“I wonder what he’ll be like.” Terry’s wistful innocence caught Alice off guard. “The soldier.”
“Oh, I’ve seen him,” Alice replied. “He’s quite good-looking. I mean, he’s not ugly or hunchbacked or anything,” she added quickly. Alice felt her cheeks and neck grow warm and she looked out to sea. The air was so sharp and clear that it made the distant bank of wind turbines, with their sluggishly rotating blades, seem closer to shore than usual. Remarkably, looking to the south she could just make out the tops of the Wendon Array, some forty miles distant. Some turbines were still intact, some had missing blades, but none turned. These neglected wind generators had fallen into disrepair many years ago. Dad said they had mostly been stripped of their cables and instrumentation during visits over the years by the Goodfleet maintenance boat. The hold of the Sea Princess was loaded with spares of everything that might ever need replacing on their own turbines.
Terry looked at Alice, who had begun fiddling with the toggles of her duffle coat. “The boy’s been told who we are. His sergeant pointed me out to him when they came to the house yesterday.”
“I wonder, why us?” Terry didn’t sound in the least concerned, like it was just another part of the same adventure game, which in a way it was, only adventure games didn’t as a rule involve killing real people. Alice shivered. She thought back to the blood and mess in Marsha’s bedroom; the spray of bullet holes across the wall, the butchered carcase of Miss Havisham in the tiny bathroom. Good looking or not, this boy was part of an invasion force that had proved itself to be ruthless and utterly determined.
The girls slid down off the hotel wall and made their way up Sheep Street back towards the market. “You’d better get some extra bits in to feed our unwanted guest,” Alice said with exaggerated cheerfulness. “We wouldn’t him complaining to his sergeant we weren’t feeding him properly, would we now?”
Terry glanced up at Alice and caught her grin. “That’s right,” she joined in. “Otherwise, he might shoot the lot of us!” The girls laughed loudly, causing two soldiers on the opposite side of the road to stop and look them up and down. They swiftly ducked their heads and walked on, hand in hand, until they reached the corner of the market. They stopped and Alice took Terry's arms and looked into her face. “Tomorrow, after we’ve set up, Adam’s going to help you run the stall. I’ll wait with you until he arrives.”
“What? Why?” Terry almost wailed. This was most unusual. She didn’t like the sound of this at all.
“Don’t worry, I’ll tell him that you’re in charge.”
Terry looked slightly mollified at this news. She, Terry, would be in charge. “So what will you be doing then that’s so urgent?”
It’s just that I’ve already promised Don to help at the Library and I can’t let him down. Rob will come up at three to help pack away, then I want you to meet me at the Library at four. There’s something I have to tell you. It’s about Marsha.”
“Don’t tell me she’s decided to get up!” Terry laughed loudly, and looked slightly put out by Alice’s lack of response. “OK, tell me tomorrow. But why not just tell me now?”
Alice sighed. “You’ll have to trust me that there is a good reason. OK?”
Although there were probably as many stalls as usual for a Wednesday, there was little of the normal bustle and hubbub. In fact, the square was practically silent, hushed like a church. Stallholders stood quietly by their goods while customers picked their way in silence among the baskets of fish, fruit and veg, general groceries, spare parts, furniture, tools and leather goods. Pinched and anxious faces only glanced at the merchandise before the eyes flicked up to scan the perimeter of the market. The militia had set up two posts on opposite corners of the square, each consisting of a lorry and a site hut from which, at intervals, soldiers entered and left. They did not cross the market but instead patrolled the outside in twos. It was the younger soldiers who did most of the walking. The older men tended to stay close to the hut. They had radio handsets attached to their uniforms and talked into them at intervals. Occasionally, a Land Rover would turn up. This was how the senior ratings moved about; the Commander’s elite guard, the ones in white polo neck jumpers and peaked caps who were never seen without a submachine gun strapped to their chest. They were the least friendly of all. Their suspicious eyes and cruel mouths made Alice shudder at the sight of them. This breed of human was outside of her experience; they made her flesh creep. At their direction the ordinary soldiers would sometimes move among the stalls to single out a face that had caught the attention of these elite officers. They would then manhandle the unlucky individual at gun point through the market and bundle them into the back of the patrol vehicle. Sometimes the man might reappear on the street many hours later, often with a bloody shirt, black eyes and bruises; sometimes they would not be seen again.
After they had returned to Walsham Road with the handcart of unsold stall goods Alice had allowed Terry to go round to play at Emma’s, pushing the cart the final few hundred yards by herself. The soldier had already arrived at the house and sat on the front steps with his kit bag and rifle. He did not seem unduly bothered that he had been kept waiting. He smiled as Alice approached the house. Alice did not return the smile and pushed past him to open the front door. She led him upstairs.
“This will be your room.” Alice held the bedroom door and allowed the boy to precede her into Marsha’s bedroom. She watched his face as he looked around. The boy slid the kit bag off his shoulder and allowed it to fall to the floor with a thump. The curtains were half-closed but the afternoon sunlight fell in a wide band of lighted colour across the carpet and up the cheerful wallpaper, which Alice realised she’d never really looked at before. Blue sailing ships and lighthouses, jolly sailors pulling on a rope, that sort of thing. The room was still and silent and rather stuffy. The boy’s gaze moved slowly from the window to the double bed and then on, to take in the simple furniture – a dressing table with a large, oval mirror, a writing desk, a tallboy and, behind the door, a dark wardrobe on top of which were heaped a number of ancient hat boxes. Slowly, his eyes returned to the bed. Above it was a diagonal line of black holes that began in the headboard and ended close to the ceiling. He glanced at Alice and made as if to speak, then closed his mouth again. He cleared his throat and smiled faintly. “It shouldn’t be for long. Once...”
Alice cut him off “Will it be OK? The room.”
“What? Oh, yes. Yes, it will be fine, fine.”
“We eat at six. Are you hungry?”
“You can meet the others then.”
“Sorry, er, I don’t know your name. I can’t, not tonight. Not that I don’t want to, you understand, but I’m on duty again. We’re short-handed for patrols because of – no, I shouldn’t be telling you this. Tomorrow; if I can get off I’ll meet them tomorrow. Or the day after.”
The boy smiled, but it did as much good as smiling at a statue. “Please yourself,” Alice replied without emotion, then turned and left the boy with his bag, standing alone in the centre of the room.