The names of the dead fall with the monotony of November rain. Outside, it is grey. The school walls are grey stone, the gym, the hall, the cloisters, the quad, the classrooms, the head’s study, all grey.
The names keep falling; Edward Underhill, Anthony Varney, Robert Frederick Wade, John Adam Williams. He holds his breath. Rosalie Jane Williams. Silence. Wait. He breathes again, cautiously. Then the acid sound of the bugle cuts the silence. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them. Remembrance Day, 1959.
Strangely sobered, pupils file out into the thin November air. The rain has stopped, and for a moment, a pale and watery sun illuminates the slopes of the Chevin. Funny, how he’d never thought about her at first. Then one day he found himself sitting in the Library facing the plaque, the letters picked out in gold. And every time he looked up, his eyes had focused on her name. In the silence, it seemed as though a pact had been made between them. Who was she? What did she do? What did she look like? And how did she die? Perhaps she was a spy. A siren in platform soles and scarlet lipstick. A Rita Hayworth or Hedy Lamarr, perhaps. He’d seen their pictures in the film annual in his grandma’s house. Or the blonde one, with her hair in one eye? Veronica Somebody.
A ruler slapped down on the desk with a vicious crack, a hair’s breadth from his fingers.
“Stop daydreaming, lad! Get a move on.”
Bastard he thought, as Veronica Somebody’s hair fell down into her other eye.
“You won’t scrape by the pass mark with your head in the clouds, Whitfield.”
“Er, no sir.”
“Snap out of it. It’s your life, Whitfield, not mine.”
“Yes, sir.” Thank you sir, three bags full, sir. Veronica Somebody dissolved in a cloud of her own hair and drifted out of the window. But I’ll be up there in those clouds one day, he thought when you’re pushing up the turnips.
“I saw her name on the memorial,” he said. “There are two Williams. They’re the last names, right at the bottom.”
His mother frowned. “John. That was him. Rosalie’s brother. He was the same age as me. I was quite keen on him. He was on The Hood, John.
“The Hood was sunk. Hardly anyone survived. Mr. and Mrs. Williams lost both their children. It was a terrible time. Best over and done with.” His mother frowned and looked out of the window.
“Was the sister in the navy, too?”
“No, she wasn’t a Wren…. She was a WAAF.”
“Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.”
“So what happened to her?”
“An accident, I think. Like I said, I don’t like talking about it. Best done and forgotten.”
“Your grandma might know. She knew the Williams better than I did. They used to farm up on the Chevin.”
The Chevin was the very last hill in the Pennines. It was long and low and viewed from the school windows, green and peaceful, dotted with grazing animals and in places ablaze with gorse. In winter from a distance, the Chevin seemed to glow a pinkish-chestnut colour, like the breast of a wood-pigeon. The Chevin was a magical hill, and all his life, he would carry it with him in his innermost eye.
The Williams’ farm, he discovered, scrambling down a rough track, was a long, low stone affair, now tired and shabby, as though its current owners had lost interest. The house was in a hollow, and had dormer windows festooned with ivy. He wondered which one had been hers. They overlooked a small garden, untidy and neglected, a few depressed vegetables struggling through the weedy soil and overgrown cottage roses straying over a blue slate path. Perhaps she had picked those roses and put them in a jug on the kitchen table or in a vase beside her bed. Perhaps she once sat on the bench by the back door and shelled the peas for dinner. What did she look like?
“Dark,” his grandma had said. “Dark, pretty, with thick, curly hair. She had a fresh complexion, caught the sun easily. Very lively and jolly. The boy was quiet, dark with straight hair. I think your Mum was keen on him at one time…. They were a nice family. Musical. The girl used to play the piano. Mr. Williams used to sing in the church choir. But they seemed to lose heart after the boy died. Then the girl got killed as well, and I don’t think they ever got over it.”
“What happened to her, do you know?”
His grandmother gave him a curious look. “There was an accident on an airfield. The family was too upset to talk about it. She was killed by a plane on the runway. Anyway, Alan, what do you want to know about things like that for?”
“Oh, no reason,” he said. “It’s just that no-one ever really talks about the War…”
“We had six years of it, Alan. Six horrible years, when you never knew who was going to die next, or even if you’d wake up to see the next day. No wonder nobody wants to talk about it! It wasn’t all John Wayne, winning it all by himself. It was real people, at home, in the towns and in the fields. We were all in it. That’s why none of us like talking about it.”
But we ought to know about it, he thought. We ought to know….
The airfield was in East Anglia, a half hour’s drive from the coast across the flat fields of Lincolnshire, dissected by dykes and shredded by the wind. There were the signs, faded but still legible. RAF Wyvernhall. MOD Property, Keep Out, and a tattered barbed wire fence. The hangars in the distance were wind-blown and dilapidated. Some Nissen huts were well-kept, but it was obvious the aerodrome was not used for regular flying any more. The runways had been concreted, but were now becoming cracked and pot-holed. In wartime, he thought, most runways were simply grass. In the distance, a few sheep were grazing, preventing the grass reclaiming it completely. All these buildings had been thrown up very quickly at the outbreak of war, yet twenty years later, they could have dated from the time of Bonaparte, rather then Hitler and Churchill. In another few years, he thought, no-one will ever know they were here.
“What’s so interesting?” said his wife. “It’s just an old airfield.”
“It’s part of our history,” he said.
“Well, there’s nothing here now. We can be at the coast by lunchtime, if we get a move on….”
It was twenty years before he came again to the Fens. Divorced now, returning alone from a business trip to Kings Lynn, he realised he could not be far from Wyvernhall. New suburbs had sprung up, and older lanes become more choked and more mud-caked than ever, but suddenly he found himself in a place he thought he knew. The old signs were taken down and much of the perimeter wire replaced by fencing. Most of the hangars had gone, and newer buildings took their place, but the runways were still there and the outline of the former airfield still recognisable. A few forlorn “To Let” signs were nailed to the fencing and some buildings showed signs of habitation, but most looked empty. It was grey and cold and even more forbidding than the day he had first seen it, and the wind whipped across old concrete and tarmac and rattled corrugated roofs. The grass had receded, but dark skeletal trees had sprung up along the perimeters and weeds grew in the cracks of runways and trembled beside crumbling Nissen huts. Wyvernhall in November was the Fenlands at their bleakest.
A mile or so down the road was a small red-brick pub and a group of jerry-built cottages that seemed to be clinging onto the landscape by sheer will-power. A few locals hung around the bar gazing gloomily into their beer.
“I was wondering if any of you knew anything about the old aerodrome,” he said. “If any of you ever worked there, perhaps?”
“Brylcream Boys, them. No, I was in the navy,” said one. “And him.” He nodded towards his companion. “All shut down now, anyroad. Some small businesses opened up there, but none of them ever done much good.”
“Before my time,” said the barman. “I’m from Kings Lynn, myself. – Jim over there, he might know.” he nodded at a man in the corner. “He’s from the village.”
“Were you in the War,” he asked the man in the corner, as a Jack Russell sniffed round his shoes with an ominous rumbling growl.
“Nah,” he said. “Well, not properly. I were only a lad when the War started. Not called up till 1945. By the time I got out there, it were all over. I was in Germany, though. Army of Occupation for two years…”
“So you’d be here during the War, then?”
“Oh ar. I worked on one of the farms. There was some POWs there. And a few land girls.”
“Do you remember anything about the aerodrome? I’m interested in the old RAF station.”
“Oh aye. What are you, then, plane-spotter, write for the papers or what?
“Just interested. Flying’s my hobby. Just got my pilot’s license. Restoring old planes and flying them, that’s what I want to do…” He paused. “Someone I know was here in 1944.”
“I don’t know about people who were stationed there, well, not by name, anyroad. I remember a couple of bad crashes, though.”
“Do you remember a girl being in an accident?”
The man nodded. “I remember the young WAAF who was killed, yes.
I remember her. Relative of yours, was she?”
“Well, sort of…”
“She was putting out marker lights on the runway. They couldn’t have proper lights then, you see. Not like what they have now. The German planes would have spotted them. She was putting out lines of them kettle-things – “goosenecks” they used to call them. They had oil in them and you lit ’em with a match….”
“And the plane crashed?”
“Skidded off the runway, ran right into her. I think the pilot survived. Another person died. I can’t remember now. They never had another crash after that one.” He stared into his beer. “They used to say it was that girl as guided them all down. Her ghost, like. People were very superstitious in them days, especially them young pilots. Anyroad, very sad. I went away not long after, so I can’t tell you any more…”
“Thanks,” he said. He bought them all drinks, and went on his way in silence as he drove between the vast, flat fields, feeling no great desire to return. Wyvernhall, was after all, probably the last place God made.
He must have been nearing the coast when he realised something was wrong. It had become painfully cold and quite suddenly everything on the instrument panel seized up. Where the hell was he? His hands and feet were like ice. These old planes had no heating. No wonder those wartime pilots swaddled themselves up in leathers and great boots and helmets. He must have been mad to make a North Sea crossing in this old crate, without checking it out properly himself. Certificate or not, he should still have given it a thorough check before taking it up… Bloody fool…what was he trying to prove? The weather had been fine when he left Rotterdam, but now mist and cloud were swirling round and visibility was deteriorating by the minute… His watch had stopped. Nothing was working, and a great weight seemed to be pushing him down. He was losing height. Confusion was taking over. Lack of oxygen to the brain. Ice. It must be ice. Ice, seizing everything up, pushing him down like a giant hand towards the North Sea.
The cloud parted, and below for a brief moment, he saw moonlight catch a ripple of water, then to his relief, a dark angle of land like the corner of a square. The edge of the Wash. The cloud was slithering into silvery strips now, but the land was completely dark. As he crossed the fine line where the sea met the land, it was as dark as pitch. Not a light was showing. Not a town, not a village, nothing.
He was still losing height, though not as dramatically as he had thought. If he could keep the thing level, if he could go down into farmland somewhere, the fields here were flat, he had a chance, but it was pitch dark. He would have to risk it.
Then suddenly, in the darkness ahead, he saw a double line of lights, flickering like candles. Lights. Too dim for runway lights. Yet they must be.
Wyvernhall, he thought. I’ve found Wyvernhall!
He was losing height steadily now, he would have to take that chance. If only he could get the undercarriage down. He wrestled with all his strength and was rewarded with a reluctant grinding clonk. He headed for the lights and held his breath. As he bounced and skidded between the lines, he realised they really were flickering, and as he ground to a halt, a small figure scurried out of the darkness with a light in its hand.
“That was a bumpy one!” she said, as he opened the cockpit and waited for the props to stop turning. She had a torch on a leather strap suspended from her shoulder, which together with the guttering light of the oil-lamps she had been lighting gave just enough of a glow to show curly dark hair pushing out from under a cap and the collar of a great-coat turned up against the cold. As he jumped to the ground on leaden feet, her face was very close to his own, and for a moment, despite the oily smoke from the lamps, he smelled the warmth of her skin.
“It’s me, Rosy,” she said. “Your good luck charm. I bring you all down, safe and sound!” And her warm bright face laughed at him. Then other lights combed the darkness, and a dog barked.
“Good God!” said a man’s voice. “Over here, Tom, over here! – Are you alright, mate?”
“I’m okay,” he said. And there was no-one there but himself and the security men and piles of builders’ materials and a concrete mixer beside the line of the old runway. And the light of their torches lit up the name painted lovingly on the side of the cockpit. Rosalie. Rosalie Jane.
NB This story may be found in my book THE SIREN OF SALAMANCA (Leaf Books 2008)