Short story: The Light of Angels
PUBLISHED: 11:48 14 January 2016 | UPDATED: 14:19 14 January 2016
Last summer we invited readers to unleash their creativity in a short story competition on the theme Secret Suffolk. We had an enthusiastic response, which gave the judges – authors Liz Trenow and Ruth Dugdall – the hard task of deciding the winner. Angie Pegg, of Wilby, emerged triumphant
All day every day, Gwen sat in the day room, except when called to the dinner table. Some, of course, had to be gently woman-handled but Gwen insisted on walking unaided. Having been there for three weeks, she was getting the measure of the other residents, one of whom threw knives and forks across the table, another kept taking her clothes off and others growled expletives that made Gwen blush.
Alone and tucked up in bed, Gwen gazed absentmindedly at the glass panel above the door. The corridor lights were going on, off, on, off at short intervals and aroused in her something buried: a memory, a feeling - old and precious; old and terrible. Burrowing into her spongy brain, Gwen saw pieces of her experience as flotsam on a black, forgotten sea. Tugging and pulling at them, she gathered together some of those marked ‘October 1942’.
And then came the flood.
As they trudged down the road with a suitcase each, Gwen looked back at their cottage in Iken, asking when they might return, but her mother was weeping, which always filled her with terror. Dad’s burly, comforting arms had been taken away from her, to war, and everyday life was suddenly awash with women who, just a few years before, had remained behind their windows for most of the day.
“It’s the bloody War,” her mother cried, “they want to practise killing people using live ammunition – on our home.”
Gwen didn’t like to admit to her mother that she was quite pleased they were being evacuated to Orford, where she could see her friends and travel to school with them, without having to walk three miles. This fourth and final year was a waste of time, nobody wanted to be there, and now that she was fourteen she could leave at Easter. Scowling, to reassure her mother she was in angry agreement, Gwen smiled inwardly. Roy would be around the village, and she couldn’t wait.
By the time autumn had come, Gwen and her mother had settled into the little cottage in Ferry Road, a two-up-two-down with outside toilet that the Sudborne Estate had kindly let them have at a cheap rent. Gwen’s tiny room was at the back of the house, and as she lay there on the first few nights all she could do was watch the beam from the lighthouse flood the room, over and over like a visiting angel mesmerising her into sleep.
Mr Chapman at the grocery shop took Gwen on for the summer holidays, and at first she sold what few sweets there were to the children – as well as watching the ones who tried to steal them, so desperate was the need. She became so useful, learning to shave ham as thin as paper and organise people’s ration coupons, that Mr Chapman took her on full time. Her mother continued to make clothes at home, and now that material was in short supply, she had built a reputation for using old clothes to make up new styles, which women from the surrounding area less skilled at sewing came to rely upon.
October 23, 1942
Roy worked on the Sudborne Estate, training to be a gamekeeper under the tutelage of ‘Stucky’ Eric, who was due to retire. At seventeen, Roy had three years before being called up, and he wanted to learn as much as possible from Stucky, whose nickname came about because he had worn his side-turned cap for so long that people joked it was stuck to his head, great wisps of white hair curling up around the edges.
“Oi think yer a bit sweet on that young Gwen, eh bor?” teased Stucky, and Roy blushed. “What yer waitin’ fer? This war in’t stoppin’ anytoime soon.” So Roy took the plunge, and turned up at Chapman’s shop the following Saturday lunchtime with a picnic of egg sandwiches, apples and lemonade. Waiting for Gwen to come out, he sat in the village square and looked around. Despite the War, he mused, birds were still singing, men still visited the pub whilst their wives did the shopping, and people still fell in love.
Coming out of the shop, Gwen saw him and stopped. A fierce blush coursed through her, making her face red and hot.
“Hello, Gwen. I thought you might like to have a picnic? I have to go over to the Coastguard Hut beside the lighthouse and check the rat traps we set last week.”
“But I thought nobody was allowed there now,” said Gwen.
“Normally no, but Stucky was asked to set the traps. Apparently there are loads of rats around there, and the Home Guard want to use it for something. Fancy it?”
“Well, that would be nice, I suppose,” said Gwen, “but I have to be back at two o’clock.” They walked towards the lighthouse, each looking shyly at the other before their steps fell into line.
“Do you know what a group of rats is called?” asked Roy, not waiting for an answer. “It’s a mischief.” Again, a surging blush, and Gwen laughed.
“As long as there’s no mischief from you.” They held hands, the wind picking up her long brown hair and tugging at his cap. She thought his long nose handsome.
“But Gwen, that sounds lovely. A picnic! I don’t understand why you’re so upset,” Agnieska the care worker said soothingly, stroking Gwen’s shoulder as they sat together on the bed in the middle of the night. Gwen looked at her blankly, and the tears came again.
“I can’t help crying, it was something to do with the picnic. I haven’t cried for so long. I thought it had gone, like so many things. What colour were Mother’s eyes? You tell me, because I don’t know! Where has she gone? What is happening to me?”
“I think you had a bad dream, that’s all Gwen. Now, get back into bed and I’ll make you a nice cup of Horlicks, you like that, don’t you?” Gwen didn’t know.
October 23, 1942
Standing at the base of the lighthouse, Gwen looked up and saw birds swirling around, great clouds scudding across the sky, and she felt as if she were moving. The sea was choppy and the wind so strong that Roy suggested they eat their picnic in the hut. They sat in the doorway, suddenly ravenous, and ate the food quickly.
Drinking lemonade, Gwen’s eyes caught Roy’s, and she put down the bottle. There they sat facing each other, until he placed his hand gently onto the back of her head, his fingers moving her hair in a way that made her feel peculiar. Then they kissed.
“Roy,” whispered Gwen.
“It’s alright, Gwen, I only want to kiss you. No mischief.” Time stood still as they wrapped around each other, lying on the floor of the hut, discovering each other’s tongues and being clumsy and laughing with joy when it happened.
First, a droning sound, then a shuddering, shaking sensation when the flying metal passed low above them, dark and threatening. The explosions came seconds later, and the ground shook. They ran to the back of the lighthouse and saw a pall of smoke rising from the village. Gwen thought she heard a scream, but it might have been the wind. Running together, they reached the village and were met by the sight of a dazed Mrs Chapman standing on top of a heap of rubble where the shop had been. People were everywhere, and then the screaming began. Men were scrabbling among the ruins pulling at the rubble with their bare hands, calling out for silence so that they could listen for anyone trapped beneath. Some of the Manor House cottages had also taken a hit, and out of one of them Muriel Butterworth ran screaming, “My baby! My baby! He’s in bed upstairs!”
But there was no upstairs, save for a piece of wall with a small black fireplace hanging off it. Muriel’s face was distorted with terror, and Gwen could bear it no longer. She ran home to find her mother, who was not there even though the sewing machine stood as if she had just popped out. A telegram from the army lay on the table. Everything in her life changed in that moment, and Gwen knew that from now on she would be living in a different kind of world.
There were thirteen dead, including Gwen’s mother who had run to the shop to see her daughter. The bomb had been dropped at ten past two. As Gwen stood beside the communal grave two days later, she was filled with sorrow and guilt, as if by being late she had caused the tragedy. It did not cross her mind that being late had saved her own life.
“Goodnight,” said Agnieska. And Gwen disappeared into the void.