28 August 2018

I think this might have been our third Doddington Hall sculpture trail. They put one on in alternate years. If you live anywhere near Lincoln or Newark, it's a must-see. Click the Read More for an...

Seamarsh cover 3 23. The Lodger

The Seamarshes kind of adopted me, unofficially because such things were very informal back then; still are, in fact. It seems, looking back, that most of the recognised rules and laws and customs about such matters were scrapped; nobody could be bothered with the niceties, faced with survival or annihilation. It became essential that everyone could be trusted to act with the noblest of intentions. Those that chose not to – the looters, the hoarders, the selfish ones – well, they didn’t last very long. Usually, the Army dealt with them, and if they didn’t then the townspeople did. Another body on a pile of bodies escaped notice, even if that body’s throat had been cut. They say more than a few old scores were settled back in those times.

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 tomcat who had attached himself to the family several years ago. “Another stray to add to the collection,” Vic Seamarsh had remarked as he introduced him to the family. 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 chequered tablecloth. How young she still was, Alice thought.

“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 fruit I dried from 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 of 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, the praise delighted him, and a faint smile flicked on and off across his normally serious face. Six months younger than Alice, Rob was, like Adam, the natural child of Vic and Marsha. In appearance, he took after his mum more than his dad. Already a well-built lad, he would need to watch out later in life that his body didn’t turn to fat. Most Goodfleet lads wore their hair cropped but, Rob being Rob, he preferred a longer style. When cooking, the straight, dark brown fringe had a tendency to flop in his eyes, to give the impression of staring out 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.”

“Where’s that?”

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 I’m sure you know. I did Europe as a student and we once had a family holiday in Greece, but mostly it was Bournemouth or Scarborough or Scotland. I came to know this island pretty well in my travelling days and I’ve never regretted it. At the time, I thought Britain the best place on earth to live. Who knows, maybe it still is. But my travels never smelled like this. Fish and chips, more like.”

Alice and Rob laughed and in that warm kitchen on a bright May afternoon, their plainly grim situation began to feel slightly less hopeless. 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) and 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 kitchen’s central space.

Occupying one corner of the 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, my dear,” Don replied, smiling. “Nobody knows how this will end, but we can be pretty certain that life will never be quite 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 essentially they are a bunch of cold-blooded killers who will do whatever it takes to secure their objectives.”

“Are you worried?”

Don drew in his lips and puffed out his eyes. “Well, I suppose I ought to be; I suppose we all should be, but to be perfectly 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. Always confront your demons, I say. Whoever made up that stupid piece of advice ‘get thee behind me, Satan’ needs their head tested.”

“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. To me the past decade has seemed like something of a miracle, like sheltering in the eye of a hurricane, a collective holding of the breath. And so, over the years, people have put the suffering, brutality, and loss of those earlier times to the back of their lives and got on with the business of living. In a way, perhaps it is 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 of a hug from his mum, assuming Miss Havisham allowed it.

“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 for, without warning, a shattering crash from the room above cleaved the day in two.

A heart stopping yelp, then, “No! No! Oh no!” Thudding feet pounded down the steep stairs, then another wretched howl that only ceased as the door flew open and Rob stood, framed by the doorway. His hands gripping his cheeks, he dropped to his knees and wailed, “It’s Mum. 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 quietly, standing and pulling his jacket from the back of the chair.

Alice had also stood and moved instinctively to kneel and hug and comfort the weeping Rob, saying small soothing things as one did to a small 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, and then turned and left by the back door, leaving the two children consoling one another in their misery.

****

That evening the youngsters 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, Alice felt sure, help her to break this news, and nothing would be gained from letting Terry see what had happened. Adam had taken it as Adam took pretty much everything – calmly and outwardly stoical. Alice knew from 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, exhaled deeply and then rose, carefully avoiding Alice’s eyes and instead crossed to the window. He looked out into the garden. Rob stood in one of the flowerbeds, stripped to the waist, hacking angrily at a half-unearthed apple tree stump, using probably five times the energy the job actually needed as he furiously swung the mattock again and again, his boy’s red face sweating and desperate. Adam could easily imagine what Rob must be thinking.

****

It had already begun to get dark when a loud knock on the front door made everyone jump. Adam opened it, to be confronted by four soldiers carrying a long package. “We’ve come for the body,” the one at the front said unceremoniously and, without waiting for a reply, pushed past Adam and mounted the stairs, tailed 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 who wore a sergeant’s stripes, looked like he knew what he was doing, and he instructed the other three who, Alice noted, looked to be little more than boys. Alice stayed long enough to witness the grisly process of manoeuvring Marsha’s stiff and heavy corpse into the assembled box.

The struggle to get the coffin down the stairs was almost comical, like a scene from a Laurel and Hardy film Alice had once watched at the Library. In desperation, the soldiers let the box slide down the longest flight of stairs, slowing its descent using ropes. When the coffin had been loaded on to the lorry the sergeant in charge ordered the men into the back and then marched back over 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 swallowed hard and tried to conceal her fear. She had a hundred questions, like ‘why us?’ and ‘for how long?’ and ‘what is his name?’, but she contented 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, “Mallick! Show yourself!”

The hairless, moon face of a boy no more than fifteen years old appeared at the tailgate of the lorry. The black hair and brown skin surprised her; he reminded her of Benny, eldest son of the Chey family, who ran the Indian chippie in Bank Street. Large brown eyes in an open, pleasant face, almost female in its well-drawn features, flicked briefly up from the ground to meet Alice’s regard. His expression showed curiosity and a half smile wavered fitfully, like a small child’s when greeting a stranger. The sergeant pointed at the house. “This will be your digs, Mallick. Come here after patrol with your kit and this um …” He consulted his list again. “Miss Seamarsh will show you your room.”

“Aye aye, Sarge,” 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 after spotting 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?” she said when she reached the front steps.

“Oh, they told us we’d be putting up a soldier. It’s only 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, 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.”

****

That week’s Wednesday Market hosted fewer stalls than on a typical market day but most people had taken the Commander’s words at face value and were attempting to carry on with their lives as normally as possible while under the inspection of an enemy force whose intentions were far from benign. Terry and Alice had already been at their stall for several hours, but had sold little. 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, herring, and mackerel. Terry had soon tired of hanging about doing nothing and whined so much that Alice had to ask the next-door stallholders to mind theirs while they went for a walk.

Inevitably, the girls drifted in the direction of the harbour. After twenty minutes of cruising the streets, they halted in front of the Esplanade Hotel and, for a while, they sat and rested on the hotel wall and watched the comings and goings of the invaders. The dock gates had been closed for the first time in Alice’s recollection. Nobody was allowed through without first presenting their identity card to the guard sitting in a hut that had been set up by the pedestrian gate. Even then, few gained access.

“I wonder what he’ll be like.”

“Who do you mean?” Terry’s wistful innocence caught Alice off guard.

“The soldier.”

“Oh, him. Actually, I’ve seen him,” Alice replied. “He’s quite good-looking.” Terry gave Alice a quizzical glance. “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 sharp, clear air magnified the distant bank of wind turbines, with their sluggishly rotating blades, and today they appeared closer to shore than usual. Remarkably, looking to the south Alice could just make out the tops of the Wendon Array, some forty miles distant. However, few of the generators remained intact; some had missing blades and some towers had none at all, but not a single blade turned. These neglected wind towers had fallen into disrepair many years ago. Dad said they had been stripped of their cables and instrumentation during visits over the years by the Goodfleet maintenance boats. Consequently, the hold of the Sea Princess held 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, happy to accept it as simply another part of the same adventure game, which it was in a way, only adventure games didn’t 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 carcass of Miss Havisham laying in the tiny bathroom. Good looking or not, this boy marched with 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, now would we?”

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 patrolling on the opposite side of the road to stop and look them up and down. The girls swiftly ducked their heads and walked on, hand in hand, until they reached the corner of the market, where they halted. 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 did not sound at all good. She could run the stall by herself, thank you very much; she didn’t need Adam interfering.

“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 only because I’ve already promised Don I’ll 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 in 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 tell me now?”

Alice sighed. “You’ll have to trust me that there is a good reason. OK?”

****

The market square was practically silent, shorn of its usual bustle and hubbub. Stallholders stood quietly by their goods while customers picked their way in silence among the few remaining baskets of 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 with 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. The younger soldiers did most of the legwork. The older men tended to hang around the hut, speaking from time to time into radio handsets attached to their uniform.

Occasionally, a Land Rover carrying the senior ratings would arrive, the Commander’s elite guard dressed in white polo neck jumpers and peaked caps, with their suspicious eyes and cruel mouths and never without a submachine gun strapped across their chest. They made Alice shudder. This breed of human was outside her experience; they made her flesh creep.

Directed by the older men, the ordinary soldiers would sometimes move among the stalls to single out a face that had caught someone’s attention. The unfortunate individual would be manhandled at gunpoint through the market and bundled 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 airless room rang with stillness and silence. Through the half closed curtains, the afternoon sunlight fell in a wide band 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 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.

He eyed the bed and, above it, the 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?”

“Starving.”

“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 him with his kit bag, standing alone in the centre of the room.

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