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They’d pulled it off. No one had noticed she wasn’t a man. But now, with the shrill whistle of Luftwaffe aircraft diving towards them in wave after unrelenting wave, she questioned her sanity in persuading Bren to let her come with him to Dunkirk.
‘Come on, hold my hand . . .’ The desperate soldiers, neck-high in freezing water, didn’t care that the voice urging them to make one last effort to climb into the boat belonged to a woman. Exhausted, terrified and near to death, they found the strength from somewhere to clamber over the side.
The glow of a thousand fires lit the face of the next in line. She looked into his eyes and saw them glaze over. They were young eyes and fearful in the knowledge that he wasn’t going to make it. ‘Just take my hand. Come on, you can do it . . . Please – no, no, don’t give up. You’re safe now . . . Help me, someone help me!’ No one heard her as the crashing explosions all around them drowned out her voice.
His grasp loosened. The blood-filled water folded over his face. Tears ran down her cheeks. They mingled with the stinging sea spray. She’d failed him . . . Oh God!
‘’Ere, give me a hand, mate. ’Elp me . . .’ The plea jolted her back from her desperation. She had to keep going.
Taking the outstretched hand with both of hers and putting her foot against the side of the boat, she hauled with every ounce of strength she had, until the soldier could grasp the side and slither into the boat.
Leaving him, she turned back to the water. Another hand reached for her, and behind him yet another. The line of men had an end. It trailed back to the beach, where thousands of battle-worn soldiers waited – sitting targets for the machinegun fire ripping through them, making their bodies dance even after they had fallen.
The futility of it all sapped her strength until she felt herself folding with despair, but a voice stopped her desolation.
‘I’ll take over, lass. Move over, get below for a bit. I’ll get them in. I’m Corporal Moisley, Yorkshire Regiment. Some of me muckers are in the line. How many can you take on board?’
‘Fifteen.’ Such an inadequate number. ‘Thanks. I’m Alice . . . Alice D’Olivier.’ His face held a look of astonishment, before changing to one of disgust. She was used to that. Her name often provoked such a reaction. But then, just as if she hadn’t spoken, he turned from her and carried on where he’d left off, discussing the business in hand. ‘Well, I reckon as this one’ll do it, then. Come on, Barrowclough, hitch yourself up. Good lad. You made it.’
To the others, in a voice that might have been turning them away from a football-stadium turnstile instead of a chance to survive, he shouted, ‘Sorry, lads. But there’s more boats coming. A reet Armada of them. You’ll catch the next one. Keep encouraging those behind you – good lads! Tell them I’ll be back with the skipper on his next trip, as this young lass here is a toff and out of her depth.’
The way he said ‘toff’ stung Alice and confirmed her suspicions that the disgust she’d seen in his look meant he must have heard of her father. Would she ever live down the shame?
She didn’t want to berate him for the insult – she’d allowed so many jibes over the years, unable to challenge them. So what did one more matter? Instead she went to thank him, but the words were subsumed into a blast that blocked her ears, leaving high-pitched sounds zinging around her trembling body.
The violent motion of the boat flung her onto her back. Others landed near her; one fell onto her feet.
As the motion steadied they lifted themselves up. In the distance behind them flames engulfed a huge ship. A gaping hole showed where its guts had been ripped out, by what could only have been a mine. Wood and steel screeched as the water devoured it. Men screamed the agony of a burning hell. At that moment the thought came to her that the world was coming to an end. Oh, God, help them, help them . . . help us all . . .
A hand shoved her. ‘Get yourself to the skipper. Tell him we’re ready for the off. Go on, there’s nowt as we can do for them.’
Pushing through the men slumped on the deck, Alice made it to Bren’s side. ‘We’re full. We need to go.’
‘Oh, my darling, you shouldn’t have come. I shouldn’t have given in.’
The endearment grated on her. She didn’t want it. Nor did she want to see his hurt as she rejected his outstretched arm wanting to pull her to him. The edge of her irritation showed her voice as she shouted, ‘This isn’t the time, Bren! Just get us out of here. Please.’
‘There never will be a time, will there?’
She didn’t answer this. Bren reacted by taking on a professional stance. Handing her a torch and compass, he said, ‘Right, I know my way along the coast to where the naval officer said we should head for, but once we get to buoy six, you’ll have to take over the navigation from there. He said we were to turn nor’west on a direct course for Dover.’
‘How far is it, Skip?’ Moisley’s voice came from behind her.
‘It’s thirty-nine nautical miles, according to my information.’
‘Reet. Have you any refreshments on board, or fags maybe?’
‘We have both. Though whether there’s enough or not is another matter. Alice will show you where they are, Corporal . . . ?’
‘Moisley. We met up on deck. He helped me to get the last of the men in the boat. Follow me, Corporal. The galley is down here.’ Holding the rail and swinging her body downwards, Alice found the steps with her feet.
‘I can make tea,’ she told him, ‘but we only have four mugs, so the men will have to pass them round. We have sandwiches, and . . . and smoked salmon, a salad, cold potatoes . . .’
‘Toff’s grub, eh?’
‘I take it you know who my father was?’
‘Aye, and more of your family. But it’s a long story, and I ain’t for telling it now.’
‘I can’t imagine how you can possibly know any other members of my family! I accept that you have heard of my father – everyone has – but I am not my father, Corporal. He . . . he died the year I was born. I have no memory of him.’  And the memories I tried to make up were tainted and destroyed when I found out what he had done. Will I ever come to terms with it all?
Shaking this thought away, she was determined not to lose her dignity in front of this man, who already held her in disdain. Instead she set about gathering what they would need for the tea. ‘There’s some tobacco in that drawer. We took a minute to buy plenty before we left, guessing it would be the first thing the men would want.’ He ignored her attempt at a smile. His insolence made her angry, and she found anger a better companion than the thoughts of her father or the fear of their situation.
Trying to make tea with the boat rocking precariously from side to side took all her attention. Water ran around her feet. Looking down, she saw about an inch swirling around, but it wasn’t enough to worry about. The lamp she’d lit after pulling the blinds down creaked as it swayed, but thankfully the noise of the battle raging behind them was lessening, though it didn’t wipe itself from her mind.
Moisley left her, his hands filled with packets of tobacco and papers. Picking up the matches, she caught up with him and shoved them into his pocket.
‘You may not be your da, but you’re still of him – and that’s enough for me to hate the guts of you,’ he said.
A sob racked her throat. The tears followed. Tears of stupid, bloody hurt pride. Wiping them away, she was determined not to give in. If she did, she’d be lost.
The day had started out with the excitement of being with Bren. He’d asked her to accompany him on a trip on his boat to Henley. ‘We’ll take a picnic, and I have a surprise for you,’ he’d said. His voice had held an expectation that told her he meant to propose. She had thought if it was that, she could handle it – even hoped that she would have a spark in her that would enable her to accept. But with the scuppering of their plans, none of it had mattered.
The order had come whilst they were filling the cupboards in the galley with food. The owner of the local boat-building yard had called out to Bren, ‘Not a good day for messing about on a boat, sir. I’ve bad news, I’m afraid.’ Explaining further, he’d told them he’d been charged with letting the owners know that the Navy was commandeering all shallow-draught boats. The Allied forces in France were retreating and were trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk. ‘Everything and anything that can float is needed to get them off,’ he’d said, and then told them, ‘There are upwards of three hundred thousand of them, sir. A disaster.’
Fear had dried her throat. If the forces had failed to keep back the Germans in France, then the invasion of their shores must be imminent!
Bren saying he would go and help with the evacuation had overridden her fear and given her a way to try and wipe out the stigma of her father’s name. She would go too; she’d show that not all D’Oliviers were cowards. None of Bren’s arguments had dissuaded her. Running to the boatyard owner’s office, she’d telephoned home, leaving a message with her mother’s maid to say that she would be staying at Bren’s overnight. There had been no need to say more, as her mother wouldn’t care one way or the other. Bren had phoned his own mother. Telling her the truth, he’d begged her to keep up the charade of the overnight stay.
When they reached Ramsgate a naval engineer had met them and told them they were to leave the boat and allow Navy personnel to take it from there. Bren had stood firm, telling them, ‘I’m Brendon Wellingham – Officer Wellingham. Completed my training at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth last week. On leave for three weeks awaiting deployment. This is my yacht, and I am taking her over myself. I have an experienced mate with me.’
The engineer had looked over at her. She’d prayed that her huge sou’wester and the height of a man hid the fact that she was a woman. Saluting and clipping his heels in respect for Bren’s rank, the naval engineer told them they would be given their orders when they reached Dover. But before they were allowed to set sail, their boat had to be checked over by him and his team and passed as seaworthy.
As he’d left them, Bren had turned to her and asked, ‘Alice, do you think you can march?’ ‘I should be able to,’ she’d told him. ‘You drilled me enough when we played military games as children.’ The lightness of this statement hadn’t moved him from his anger at her. He just said, ‘Well, do so as we walk over to the mess-hut, otherwise the men will cotton on that you’re not a man. I’ll be in all sorts of trouble if they do!’
This had been the longest sentence Bren had uttered to her since they had left his mooring on the Thames. But she knew that he dealt with his feelings by remaining silent, so she had accepted it.
His anger with her hadn’t just been because of her stubbornness in asserting her right to come with him on this mission, but encompassed his need to change their lifelong friendship into something deeper. She wanted that to happen too, and had been determined to try, but it wasn’t easy for her to accept love, or to give it, not even to Bren. And yet Bren was her life. For most of it he’d been the only normal presence she’d known, and his weekly visits when they were children had been the one good thing she’d had to look forward to. Those visits were something Mother couldn’t stop happening, though she often threatened to. Threats, Alice knew, along with all the other cruelty she’d suffered at her mother’s hand, were Mother’s way of punishing her for being who she was – her father’s daughter!
But in all this Alice had an ally. Lady Elizabeth, Bren’s mother and the only friend Mother had left – and didn’t want to lose – had insisted on Alice and Bren spending time together.
Although reverting to her pre-marriage title of Lady Louise Fuller, Mother had never been fully accepted back into the society from which she’d been ostracised when her husband’s wrongdoing to his king and country had been made public. The only real contact with society that she’d had, and the only chance of getting the occasional invitation, had lain with Lady Elizabeth.
Alice often wondered if Lady Elizabeth had realized what was going on. If she had, surely she would have intervened and stopped the cruelty? She had to believe that Lady Elizabeth hadn’t known, and remained grateful to her for accepting that a child should have at least one friend, and for making sure her son was allowed to visit each and every Saturday afternoon.
Bren and his mother had been her sole contact with the outside world in those days. Never leaving her house and garden, she had been brought up by her nanny and schooled by her governess, and rarely even had a chat with the servants scurrying around her large home, which stood on the border of Bexley’s Danson Park in south-east London.
When that wonderful day had come for her to leave home and go to boarding school, parting from Bren had broken Alice’s heart and marred her joy. But she had found her school in Belgium to be both a release from the horrors of her home life and a bringer of new experiences – not least the language used, which alternated between French and German, with very little English being spoken. It had taken her a surprisingly short time to adapt to that aspect, but a little longer to adjust to life in what had been to her a strange environment.
At first afraid of everybody and everything – and in particular the noise made by hundreds of children – she had grown in confidence over time. She’d become a leader, and had been popular with the other girls.
Holidays had been spent in France with her father’s kin, her Uncle Philippe and his family, and her ancient grandmother – a woman who had taught Alice that she had a backbone and that she had to strengthen it in order to deal with life’s knock-backs. It had worked: she’d found a way of dealing with everything. At least she’d thought she had, until at eighteen she’d returned and met up with Bren again. Oh, they’d picked up the threads of their bond easily enough, and had found them woven just as tightly as if they’d never been apart, but there had soon been challenges to the foundations of that friendship as other feelings started to develop.
But she wouldn’t think about them now. They spoiled what had always been so simple, and made it all complicated. Bren had grown from the shy, gangly ginger-haired boy she’d known into a tall, handsome man. They’d always been the same height as children, but he now stood a couple of inches taller than her, at six feet. His hair had darkened to a rust shade and suited the short-back-and-sides that the Navy had given him, making his strong features, square chin and freckled complexion all the more defined.
He’d chosen to take up a career as a doctor and was in his fourth year when war was declared last September, and he’d been called up. He’d omitted to tell the naval officer at Dover that his training in sea warfare had been limited to a few weeks for fear of them refusing him permission to go. He was to continue his training in the medical field with the Navy working in the naval hospital in England at first and then later wherever he was needed.
Alice had gone on to work in the War Office as a secretary and driver to General Stuart Westlin, a key figure in the talks leading up to that fateful day last September when Britain had declared war on Germany.
But although Westlin had played a significant role in the planning of the Allied forces’ co - operation in this initial defence of France, she wasn’t sure of his role at present. It seemed less defined, as greater responsibility had been given to a team of coordinators of which he was a part.
The generals made decisions together, and all decisions had to be passed by the PM; only an elite few had a specialized area.
The secrecy was such that leading up to the outbreak of war all personnel at the War Office were conscripted into the Army and had to swear an oath of allegiance. Most, like herself, held the rank of officer.
As if tuning into her thoughts, Bren took the mug of tea she offered him now and asked, ‘What is Westlin’s view of this retreat, Alice? Did you know the scale of the rescue operation that would be needed?’
‘No, there was no talk of an evacuation. I knew, like everyone, that the Germans were pushing us back and we were struggling to stop them, but this is a disaster!’
‘That’s an understatement. God, those poor chaps! I’ll have to go back for more, once we get these unloaded. But, Alice, no matter what you say, you’re not going back with me. Moisley has offered, and I think that best.’
‘I agree. I haven’t the strength to give it another go. It wouldn’t be fair. Has Moisley said anything to you?’
‘About what?’
‘Oh, you know . . . about me and about my father.’
‘No, why should he? How can he possibly know anything? Let it go, Alice. For God’s sake, let it go.’
Turning from him, she wished it was that easy, but what her father had done had driven her whole life from the age of ten, when she had first been told.
The trembling started at this thought, and she fought against the memories that were surfacing, but that never helped. As she sat down on a bench next to the helm, they possessed her once more, filling her with loathing and disgust as she relived how her mother had disclosed the truth.
‘You are your father personified. That disgusting, disgraceful man lives in you and makes you as evil as he was!’
She’d stood, bewildered and stinging from the constant assault of slaps that her mother meted out as she said this, taking her punishment for whatever imagined misdemeanour she was thought to have committed and telling herself, Mother isn’t well in her head. I have to remember that. And she had also to remember that her own birth had been the cause of Mother becoming unbalanced.
She’d learned this from their doctor. In an effort to help her to understand, he’d told her, ‘The difficult pregnancy and birth, and all she endured during it, has left your mother mentally sick. She cannot help her outbursts, Alice.’ It was as if this made it all right that her mother knocked her about until she was almost senseless.
This talk had come after the doctor had been fetched, following a violent attack that had left Alice unconscious. She’d learned afterwards that he’d told the household and garden staff that they should look for the signs of Mother becoming agitated and keep Alice out of her sight until the bout passed – and that was it, that was all the protection she had been offered. There was to be no other help for her. And worse was to come.
Being hit and abused became a normal everyday occurrence in her life. Nanny had done it too. Huh! There was never a more inappropriate title for the woman whose graveside she’d stood beside only weeks after the most shocking revelation of her life.
Although Alice had stood with dignity and made herself look as if she was sorry, inside she’d been cheering. She’d even imagined dancing on the woman’s grave, scattering the flowers with their kind endearments written on little cards. And the thought of doing so had lifted her, for never again would that evil woman be able to vent her cruel streak on her, or do those vile things to her body.
Nanny starting to abuse her and Mother spitting out the truth of her hatred for Father, during a particularly violent and vitriolic attack, had both happened on the same day.
‘Your father was a traitor! A filthy rotten traitor to his country. And he was shot! Shot by his own regiment for giving information to the Germans – information that led to the death of thousands in the Great War. The dirty womanizing coward!’
For a ten-year-old this had been hard to take in, but she had understood what was meant by the word ‘traitor’, and the information had shaken her world. In her room she’d taken the framed photograph of her father from the dressing table and thrown it against the wall. It had smashed into a thousand pieces.
As she curled her stinging, bruised body into a ball on her bed, it felt as if she’d lost everything. The only good thing she thought she’d had in her life – the picture of her smiling father standing proudly in his officer’s uniform – had now gone. As had the world she’d made up about him and herself, and the things they would have done together; the protection he would have given her; the hugs she’d imagined and was almost able to feel . . . All gone.
Thinking him a victim of the Great War, she’d put her father on a pedestal and he’d not deserved it. The shame of it had crucified her, and she’d never felt more alone.
The noise she’d made had woken Nanny from her afternoon nap. The sound of her heavy footsteps coming across the landing lived inside Alice and still filled her with terror.
Going to the window, she’d been frantic to catch someone’s attention, but had known that it was fruitless. Her bedroom overlooked the back garden, and the only person who’d ever shown her any kindness – Bill, their gardener – had been away on a week’s break. Sometimes he’d been able to save her. Sometimes, when she’d opened her window and screamed, he’d come into the kitchen and send one of the maids to tell Nanny that he’d have her guts for garters if she touched Miss Alice again.
This had stopped the evil woman on occasions, but she’d always had her revenge. The thought of how Nanny took her revenge that day, and many times afterwards, had Alice wrapping her arms around her waist.
Bile rose to her throat. Jumping up, she climbed the few steps to the boat’s deck, only just making it to the rail before vomit billowed from her.
Weary eyes behind curls of smoke looked over at her, but none of the men commented or moved towards her. Moisley spat into the wind, before looking away from her. She wanted to go up to him and shake him and scream at him, ‘Yes, I am his daughter, but can’t you see I’m not him? Hasn’t what I did today told you that?’ And to tell him that she’d paid – she’d paid dearly and was still paying. God, she was still paying.
The child she’d been took over and blocked this thought with her own screams. They were silent to the outside world, but scorched the inside of her as she slumped down on the deck and released them in sobs that did nothing to let free the voices of the past – Nanny’s voice as she’d helped her out of her clothes, a strange voice not like Nanny’s usual one. This voice didn’t tell of the expected beating: ‘There, there, Nanny will make it better.’ And then, ‘Nice. Good girl. Nanny loves you’, each word spoken to a caress, a stroke of little Alice’s naked body.
Frozen with the shock of it, she’d been unable to move. ‘Pretty little Alice. Look at your lovely golden curls, angelic, innocent, fresh . . .’ With these words entering her memory, there also came a picture of the distorted light of the lamp.
The pain assailed her afresh as she remembered that it seemed to have happened in time to the elongated streams of light, as Nanny moved in and out of the beams that shone across the room. ‘Put your hand in there, that’s right.’ Taking her hand, Nanny had forced it inside her blouse, holding it on her fleshy breast, then moving it over the hard nipple. ‘You should have been Nanny’s good girl before, then Nanny wouldn’t have punished you. There, you like that, don’t you?’
‘Stop it! No . . . No, it hurts. Please stop . . .’ Lifting her head now, Alice wondered if she’d said the words out loud, but the soldiers were no longer looking at her, not even Moisley.
Unclenching the muscles of her vagina, she sighed away the horror.
They were nearing the point where Bren would need her help. As she rose, the warm dampness of her body told of her sweating. Opening her sou’wester, she climbed back down the steps.
‘Are you all right, Alice? Has this been too much for you?’
Making an extreme effort, she made a joke with her reply, ‘Well, it isn’t like my usual working day, I’ll give you that.’ His smile relaxed the moment.
‘And your usual day’s work is all the excitement you are going to get for a long time, old thing, if I have anything to do with it.’
‘Huh, and who says?’ It wasn’t the best time to tell him, but the lead-in was perfect and he would have to concentrate rather than argue with her. ‘Bren, I’m taking a new job. I’m to move to being an interpreter.’
‘What? Good God, you kept that quiet! What will it entail?’
‘I had to, in a way. Anyway I will still be working at the War Office, but moving to one of the basement offices. Everything I deal with will be top secret. I am hoping my skills will be needed in the field, too . . .’
‘No. Not active service. Not that – oh, Alice, I couldn’t bear that.’
‘It might happen that I am sent to where the action is. Interpreters will be needed as the Allied forces work closer together. That is, if this lot doesn’t bring a swift end with an invasion. Don’t . . . I – I’m sorry.’ His arm reached for her and pulled her close – too close. She wasn’t ready. She’d moved herself away from him.
‘Alice, it has been four years since I first told you how I feel about you. I cannot go on any longer. I understand, I do, but this is me, Alice. Your Bren. I would never hurt you, you know that. Today I planned . . .’
‘Please, Bren, not now.’
The tense moment was broken by Moisley shouting down at them. ‘Need a hand with navigation? I’m trained in that field.’
‘Thanks, I was going to do it, but as you’re making the next trip it would be a good idea for you to show that you can cope.’ Moisley’s look didn’t mar her relief.
Back on deck, she watched the clouds drifting, some of them thick and increasing the gloom that had descended on her, others fluffy and dancing away as quickly as they came, throwing shadows that matched those covering her heavy heart as it visited the turmoil it was in over Bren. Please God, keep him safe. And help me. Help me to be able to unlock the feelings I have for him, and to give myself to him as I am meant to do. And please help me to let go of the past.
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