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Qui veurt apprendre a priaïr,
qu’il aouche en maïr.
He who wishes to learn to pray,
let him go to sea.
ONCE UPON A time there were twelve princesses . . .’ ”
My voice surprises me. It’s perfectly steady, the voice of a normal mother on a normal day—as though everything is just the same as it always was.
“ ‘Every night their door was locked, yet in the morning their shoes were all worn through, and they were pale and very tired, as though they had been awake all night. . . .’ ”
Millie is pressed up against me, sucking her thumb. I can feel the warmth of her body. It comforts me a little.
“They’d been dancing, hadn’t they, Mummy?”
“Yes, they’d been dancing,” I say.
Blanche sprawls out on the sofa, pretending to read an old copy of Vogue, twisting her long blond hair in her fingers to try to make it curl. I can tell that she’s listening. Ever since her father went to England with the army, she’s liked to listen to her sister’s bedtime story. Perhaps it gives her a sense of safety. Or perhaps there’s something in her that yearns to be a child again.
It’s so peaceful in my house tonight. The amber light of the setting sun falls on all the things in this room, all so friendly and familiar: my piano and heaps of sheet music, the Staffordshire dogs and silver eggcups, the many books on their shelves, the flowered tea set in the glass-fronted cabinet. I look around and wonder if we will be here this time tomorrow—if after tomorrow I will ever see this room again. Millie’s cat, Alphonse, is asleep in a circle of sun on the sill, and through the open window that looks out over our back garden, you can hear only the blackbird’s song and the many little voices of the streams: there is always a sound of water in these valleys. I’m so grateful for the quiet. You could almost imagine that this was the end of an ordinary sweet summer day. Last week, when the Germans were bombing Cherbourg, you could hear the sound of it even here in our hidden valley, like thunder out of a clear sky, and up at Angie le Brocq’s farm, at Les Ruettes on the hill, when you touched your hand to the window pane, you could feel the faint vibration of it, just a tremor, so you weren’t quite sure if it was the window shaking or your hand. But for the moment, it’s tranquil here.
I turn back to the story. I read how there was a soldier coming home from the wars, who owned a magic cloak that could make him completely invisible. How he sought to discover the princesses’ secret. How he was locked in their bedroom with them, and they gave him a cup of drugged wine, but he only pretended to drink.
“He was really clever, wasn’t he? That’s what I’d have done, if I’d been him,” says Millie.
I have a sudden vivid memory of myself as a child, when she says that. I loved fairy tales just as she does, enthralled by the transformations, the impossible quests, the gorgeous significant objects—the magic cloaks, the satin dancing shoes. And just like Millie, I’d fret about the people in the stories, their losses and reversals and all the dilemmas they faced. So sure that if I’d been in the story, it would all have been clear to me, that I’d have been wise and brave and resolute, that I’d have known what to do.
I read on.
“ ‘When the princesses thought he was safely asleep, they climbed through a trapdoor in the floor, and he pulled on his cloak and followed. They went down many winding stairways, and came at last to a grove of trees, with leaves of diamonds and gold. . . .’ ”
I love this part especially, where the princesses follow the pathway down to another world, a secret world of their own, a place of enchantment. I love that sense of going deep, of being enclosed. It’s like the way it feels when you follow the Guernsey lanes down here to our home, in this wet wooded valley of St. Pierre du Bois. The valley seems so safe and cloistered, like a womb. Then, if you walk on, you will go up, up, and out suddenly into the sunlight, where there are cornfields, kestrels, the shine of the sea. Like a birth.
Millie leans into me, wanting to see the pictures—the girls in their big bright glimmery skirts, the gold and diamond leaves. I smell her familiar, comforting scent of biscuits, soap, and sunlight.
The ceiling creaks above us as Evelyn gets ready for bed. I have filled her hot-water bottle; she can feel a chill even on warm summer evenings. She will sit in bed for a while and read the Bible. She likes the Old Testament best: the stern injunctions, the battles, the Lord our God is a jealous God. When we go—if we go—she will stay with Angie le Brocq at Les Ruettes. Evelyn is like an elderly plant, too frail to uproot.
“Mum,” says Blanche, out of nowhere, in a little shrill voice. “Celeste says all the soldiers have gone—the English soldiers in St. Peter Port.” She speaks rapidly, the words rising in her like steam. “Celeste says that there’s no one left to fight here.”
I take a breath. It hurts my chest. I can’t pretend anymore.
“Yes,” I say. “I heard that. Mrs. le Brocq told me.”
Now, suddenly, my voice seems strange—shaky, serrated with fear. It sounds like someone else’s voice. I bite my lip.
“They’re coming, aren’t they, Mum?” says Blanche.
“Yes, I think so,” I say.
“What will happen to us if we stay here?” she says. There’s a thrum of panic in her voice. Her eyes, blue as hyacinths, are urgent, fixed on my face. She’s chewing the bits of skin at the sides of her nails. “What will happen?”
“Sweetheart—it’s a big decision. I’ve got to think it through. . . .”
“I want to go,” she says. “I want to go to London. I want to go on the boat.”
“Shut up, Blanche,” says Millie. “I want to hear the story.”
“Blanche—London isn’t safe.”
“It’s safer than here,” she says.
“No, sweetheart. People are sending their children away to the country. The Germans could bomb London. Everyone has gas masks. . . .”
“But we could stay in Auntie Iris’s house. She said in her letter we’d be more than welcome. You told us. She said we could. I really want to go, Mum.”
“It could be a difficult journey,” I say. I don’t mention the torpedoes.
Her hands are clenched into fists. The bright sun gilds all the little fair hairs on her arms.
“I don’t care. I want to go.”
“Blanche, I’m still thinking. . . .”
“Well, we haven’t got forever.”
I don’t know what to say to her. In the quiet, I’m very aware of the tick of the clock, like a heartbeat, beating on to the moment when I have to decide. It sounds suddenly ominous to me.
I turn back to the story.
“ ‘The princesses came to an underground lake, where there were twelve little boats tied up, and each with a prince to row it. . . .’ ” As I read on, my voice steadies, and my heart begins to slow. “ ‘The soldier stepped into the boat with the youngest princess. “Oh, oh, there is something wrong,” she said. “The boat rides too low in the water.” The soldier thought he would be discovered, and he was very afraid.’ ”
Blanche watches me, chewing her hand.
But Millie grins.
“He doesn’t need to be frightened, does he?” she says, triumphantly. “It’s going to be all right, isn’t it? He’s going to find out the secret and marry the youngest princess.”
“Honestly, Millie,” says Blanche, forgetting her fear for a moment, troubled by her little sister’s naïveté. “He doesn’t realize that, does he? Anything could happen. The people in the story can’t tell how it’s going to end. You’re four, you ought to know that.”
WHEN MILLIE IS settled in bed, I go out to my garden.
The back of the house faces west, and the mellow light of evening falls on the long lawn striped with shadows, and on the rose bed under the window, where all the roses I’ve planted have names like little poems: Belle de Crécy, Celsiana, Alba Semi-plena. It’s so quiet you can hear the fall of a petal from a flower.
I remember how this sloping garden delighted me when first I came to this place, to Le Colombier. “Vivienne, darling, I want you to love my island,” said Eugene when he brought me here, just married. I was pregnant with Blanche, life was rich with possibility, and I did love it then, as we sailed into the harbor, ahead of us St. Peter Port, elegant on its green hill. And I was charmed by Le Colombier—by its age and the deep cool shade of its rooms, by its whitewashed walls and gray slate roof, and the wide gravel yard across the front of the house. In summer, you can sit and drink your coffee there, in the leaf-speckled light. The house stands gable to the road, the hedgebanks give us seclusion, we’re overlooked only by the window of Les Vinaires next door, where the wall of their kitchen forms one side of our yard.
It was all a little untidy when first I came to Guernsey, the gravel overgrown with raggedy yellow weed. With Eugene away in London, Evelyn wasn’t quite managing. Now I keep the gravel raked and I have pots of herbs and geraniums, and a clematis that rambles up and over the door. And I loved the little orchard on the other side of the lane that is also part of our land, where now the small green apples are just beginning to swell; and beyond the orchard the woodland, where there are nightingales. People here call the woodland the Blancs Bois—the White Wood—which always seems strange to me, because it’s so dark, so secret, in there in summer, under the dense canopy of leaves. But my favorite part of it all is this garden, sloping down to the stream. This garden has been my solace.
I work through all my tasks carefully. I dead-head the roses, I water the mulberry and fig that grow in pots on my terrace. Even as I do these things, I think how strange this is—to tend my garden so diligently, when tomorrow we may be gone. My hands as I work are perfectly steady, which seems surprising to me. But I step on a twig and it snaps, and then the fear comes at me. It’s a physical thing, this dread, a shudder moving through me. There’s a taste like acid in my throat.
I put down my shears and sit on the edge of the terrace. I rest my head in my hands, think through it all again. Plenty of people have gone already, like Connie and Norman from Les Vinaires, shutting up their houses, leaving their gardens to go to seed. Some, like me, are still unsure. When I last saw Gwen, my closest friend, she said they couldn’t decide. And others are sending their children without them, with labels pinned to their coats. But I couldn’t do that, I could never send my children to England without me. I know how it feels to be a motherless child.
The shadows lengthen, the colors of my garden begin to recede, till the shadows seem more solid, more real, than the things that cast them. I can hear a nightingale singing in the Blancs Bois. There’s a sadness to evenings on Guernsey sometimes, though Eugene could never feel it. When I first came here, he took me on a tour of the island, and we stopped on the north coast and watched the sun go down over L’Ancresse Bay—all color suddenly gone from the sky, the rocks black, the sea white and crimped and glimmering, the fishing boats black and still in the water, so tiny against that immensity of sea—and I felt a surge of melancholy that I couldn’t explain. I tried to tell him about it, but it didn’t make any sense to him: he certainly didn’t feel it. I had a sense of distance from him, which soon became habitual. A sense of how differently we saw the world, he and I. But I feel bad even thinking such things, of the many ways in which we were unhappy together, now that he’s gone.
There’s a sudden scatter of birds in the sky; I flinch, my heart leaping into my throat. Little things seem violent to me. And in that moment my decision is made. I am clear, certain. We will go tomorrow. Blanche is right. We cannot just stay here and wait. Terrified by the snap of a twig or a flight of startled birds. We cannot.
I go to the shed and take out my bicycle. I cycle up to the rectory to put our names on the list.
I TAKE EVELYN HER tea and toast in bed, the toast cut in exact triangles as she likes it. She’s sitting up, ready and waiting, in the neat bed jacket of tea-rose silk that she’s worn each morning for years, her back as straight as a tulip stalk. Her face is deeply etched with lines, and white as the crochet trim on her pillowcase. Her Bible is open on her bedside table, next to a balaclava that she’s knitting for the forces. She’s always knitting. A tired, nostalgic scent of eau de cologne hangs about her.
I wait until she has drunk a few sips of her tea.
“Evelyn—I’ve decided. I’m going to leave with the girls.”
She doesn’t say anything, watching me. I see the puzzlement that swims in her sherry-brown eyes. As though this is all news to her—though we’ve talked it through so many times.
“I’m taking you to Les Ruettes. You’re going to live with Frank and Angie. Angie will look after you once the girls and I have gone. . . .”
“Angie le Brocq goes out in the lanes with her curlers in,” she says.
Her voice is firm, as though her disapproval of Angie’s behavior gives her some certainty in this shifting world, something to cling to.
“Yes, she can do,” I say. “But Angie’s got a good heart. You’ll be well looked after. I’m taking you there after breakfast, as soon as I’ve packed up your things.”
Sometimes I hear myself talk to her as though she were a child. Spelling everything out so carefully.
She looks shocked.
“No. Not after breakfast, Vivienne.” As though I have said something slightly obscene.
“Yes, it has to be straight after breakfast,” I tell her. “As soon as I’ve packed a bag for you. Then the girls and I will be going to town to get on the boat.”
“But, Vivienne—that’s really much too soon. I’ve got one or two things that I really need to sort out. I’ll go next week, if that’s all right with you.”
I’m full of a frantic energy; it’s such a struggle to be patient. Now I’ve decided, I’m panicking that we’ll get to the harbor too late.
“Evelyn, if we’re going, it has to be today. They’re sending a boat from Weymouth. But after today there may not be any more boats. It’s too dangerous.”
“It’s not very helpful of them, is it? To rush us all like this? They have no consideration, Vivienne.”
“The soldiers have left,” I tell her. “There’s no one here to defend us. . . .”
I don’t say the rest of the sentence: and the Germans could walk straight in.
“Oh,” she says. “Oh.” And then, with a light coming suddenly into her face, the look of one who has found the answer: “Eugene should be here,” she says.
“Eugene’s away fighting, remember?” I say, as gently as I can. “He went to join the army. He’s being very brave.”
She shakes her head.
“I wish he were here. Eugene would know what to do.”
I put my hand on her wrist, in a gesture of comfort that’s empty, utterly futile—because what solace can I offer her when the son she adores has gone?
I MAKE THE girls their breakfast toast. I’m looking around me, aware of all the detail of my kitchen—the tea towels drying in front of the stove, the jars of raisins and flour. On the wall there’s a print by Margaret Tarrant, a Christening present from Evelyn for Blanche—the Christ Child in his crib, with angels all around. It’s a little sentimental, yet I like it, for the still reverence of the angels and the wonderful soft color of their tall fretted wings, which are the exact smoky blue of rosemary flowers. I wonder if I will ever see these things again—and if I do, what our life will be like, in that unguessable future. I say a quick prayer to the angels.
The girls come down to the kitchen, bleary, smelling of warm bedclothes, rubbing the sleep from their eyes. Alphonse sidles up to Millie and walks in small circles around her. She bends down to stroke him, the morning sun shining on her dark silk hair, so you can see all the reddish colors in it.
“Right, girls. We’re going,” I tell them. “We’ll get the boat today. It’ll take us to Weymouth and from there we’ll take the train to London.”
Blanche’s face is like a light switched on.
“Yes.” There’s a thrill in her voice. “But you could have decided earlier, Mum, then I could have washed my hair.”
“You’ll have to pack quickly,” I tell them. “As soon as you’ve finished breakfast. You’ll need underwear and your toothbrushes, and all the clothes you can fit in.”
I’ve put out a carpetbag for Millie, and for Blanche a little leather suitcase that was Eugene’s. Blanche looks at the suitcase, appalled.
“Mum, you’re joking.”
“No, I’m not.”
“But how can I possibly get everything in there?”
London to Blanche is glamour—I know that. We went to stay with Iris for a holiday once, when Blanche was six, four years before Millie was born. Ever since that holiday, London has been a promised land to her, a dream of how life ought to be. Once it was a dream of Trafalgar Square, with its dazzling fountains and pigeons, of the Tower of London, of seeing the chimps’ tea party at the zoo. But now that she’s almost a woman, it’s a dream of men in uniform—resolute, square-jawed, masterful—and tea in the Dorchester tearoom under a glittery chandelier, a dream of cakes and flirtation, with maybe a swing band playing “Anything Goes.” She wants to take all her very best things, her nylons, her coral taffeta frock, her very first pair of high heels that I bought for her fourteenth birthday, just before she left school. I understand, but I feel a flicker of impatience with her.
“You’ll have to, Blanche. I’m sorry. There won’t be much room on the boat. Just put in as many clothes as you can. And you’ll need to wear your winter coats.”
“But it’s hot, Mum.”
“Just do your best,” I say. “And, Blanche, when you’ve finished, you can give Millie a hand.”
“No, she can’t. I can do it myself,” says Millie.
She’s been drinking her breakfast mug of milk, and her mouth is rimmed with white. She bites languidly into her toast and honey.
“Of course you can, sweetheart. You’re a big girl now,” I tell her. “But Blanche will help you. Just be as quick as you can, both of you. If we’re going to go, it has to be today. . . .”
I watch them for an instant, Blanche with her sherbet-fizz of excitement, Millie still fogged with sleep. We’ve come to the moment I’ve been dreading.
“There’s one thing that’s very sad, though,” I say. “We’ll have to take Alphonse to the vet’s.”
Millie is suddenly alert, the drowsiness all gone from her. Her eyes harden. She gives me a wary, suspicious look.
“But there’s nothing wrong with him,” she says.
“I’m afraid he needs to be put to sleep.”
“What d’you mean, put to sleep?” says Millie. There’s an edge of threat in her voice.
“We have to have him put down,” I say.
“No, we don’t,” she says. Her face blazes bright with anger.
“Alphonse can’t come with us. And we can’t just leave him here.”
“No. You’re a murderer, Mummy. I hate you.”
“We can’t take him, Millie. We can’t take a cat on the boat. Everyone’s taking their cats and dogs to the vet. Everyone. Mrs. Fitzpatrick from church was taking their terrier yesterday. She told me. It was terribly sad, she said, but it had to be done.”
“Then they’re all murderers,” she says. Her small face is dark as thunderclouds. Her eyes spark. She snatches Alphonse up in her arms. The cat struggles against her.
“Millie. He can’t come with us.”
“He could live with someone else then, Mummy. It isn’t his fault. He doesn’t want to die. I won’t let him. Alphonse didn’t ask to be born now. This war is stupid,” she says.
Suddenly, it’s impossible. All my breath rushes out in a sigh. I can’t bear to distress her like this.
“Look—I’ll speak to Mrs. le Brocq,” I say wearily, defeated. It’s as though the room breathes out as well, when I say that. But I know what Evelyn would say—the thing she’s said so often before: You’re too soft with those girls, Vivienne. “I’ll see what I can do,” I tell them. “Just get yourselves packed up and ready to leave.”
I WALK WITH EVELYN to Angie’s house, up one of the narrow lanes that run the length and breadth of Guernsey, their labyrinthine routes scarcely changed since the Middle Ages. High, wet hedgebanks press in on either side of the lane; red valerian grows there, and toadflax, and slender, elegant foxgloves, their petals of a flimsy, washed-out purple, as though they’ve been soaked too long in water. I have Alphonse in a basket, and a bag of Evelyn’s clothes.
The climb exhausts Evelyn. We stop at the bend in the lane, where there’s a stone cattle trough, and I seat her on the rim of the trough to catch her breath for a moment. Sunlight splashes through leaves onto the surface of the water, making patterns that hide whatever lies in its depths.
“Is it much farther, Vivienne?” she asks me, as a child might.
“No. Not much farther.”
We come to the stand of thorn trees, turn in at the track to Les Ruettes. It’s a solid whitewashed farmhouse that’s been here for hundreds of years. There’s an elder tree by the door: islanders used to plant elder as a protection against evil, lest a witch fly into the dairy and the butter wouldn’t form. Behind the house are the greenhouses where Frank le Brocq grows his tomatoes. Chickens scratch in the dirt; their bubbling chatter is all about us. Alphonse is frenzied at the sight and smell of the chickens, writhing and mewing in his basket. I knock at the door.
Angie answers. She has a head scarf over her curlers, a cigarette in her hand. She sees us both there, and a gleam of understanding comes to her eyes. Her smile is warm and wide and softens the lines in her face.
“So. You’ve made your mind up, Vivienne.”
I’m so grateful to Angie, for helping me out yet again. She’s always been so good to me—she makes my marmalade, smocks Millie’s dresses, ices my Christmas cake—and I know she’ll be welcoming to Evelyn. There’s such generosity in her.
She puts out a hand to Evelyn.
“Come in then, Mrs. de la Mare,” she says. “We’ll take good care of you, I promise.”
She takes Evelyn to the settle by the big open hearth. Evelyn sits on the edge of the seat—tentative, as though she fears it won’t quite take all her weight, her hands precisely folded.
“I don’t know how to thank you, Angie,” I say.
She shakes her head a little.
“It’s the least I could do. And never doubt that you’re doing the right thing, Vivienne. With those two young daughters of yours, you don’t know what might happen.” Then, lowering her voice a little, “When they come,” she says.
“No. Well . . .”
- "With its stunning and evocative description of the Guernsey landscape, its subtle and astute depiction of a woman's relationship with her children, her lover, and her husband, this absorbing novel is utterly beguiling."—Rosamund Lupton, author of Sister
- On Sale
- Jun 28, 2011
- Page Count
- 416 pages
- Hachette Books