Mary Russell’s War (twenty-seven): the sound of waves
Today’s Dreaming Spies Countdown post is a new set of images on Pinterest: the Japan sojourn of Russell & Holmes, over here. Now, back to our regular Monday programming of Russell’s War:
2 February 1915
Thursday will mark the six month point of this War that was supposed to be over by Christmas. In California, the fighting in Europe is but a distant rumour, while here in Sussex—
But I get ahead of myself.
On Tuesday morning, I left the house in London without being noticed (which required that I make a small diversion in the garden at back, but I am sure nothing serious was burnt) and travelled to Victoria Station. There I bought a ticket for Eastbourne (since there were times even before the disruption caused by War when trains would neglect to stop at the closer station to my home) and was told that the delay would probably not be more than a couple of hours. I settled into the waiting area with my book, and indeed, it was not much more than two hours. As it did not take us much more than twice the normal time to reach the town.
Mr Mason was still waiting, as I had known he would be. Had the Kaiser’s troops crossed the Channel and invaded the town—had Zeppelins flattened everything from the Pier to Town Hall—he would still have contrived to find and claim me.
Not that he was pleased to see me, exactly. He took my valise with as ill grace as he could manage, indicating just what he thought of my decision to come to the coast, and unaccompanied at that. It took me most of the trip home before I could distract him from disapproval, by earnest enquiries into the farm, and the horses, and the life of the village as a whole.
I will admit, I nearly broke down when I walked into the kitchen. Mrs Mark, the neighbouring lady whom Mother depended on both while we were in residence and when we were away, had lit the fires and filled the pantry (as well she could considering the shortages). I stood there in the warmth and the fragrance of her new-baked bread, and when she came over to give me a hug, it was all I could do to keep the tears from running down my face.
Mrs Mark tutted and fussed and made haste to supply me with tea and food, which returned the world to some stability, since I had neither eaten nor drunk since morning. She showed me three times where everything was, exclaimed four times at how grown up I was, scolded me for my thinness five times, and on the sixth recitation of how good it was to see me, I gently ushered her towards the door and told her that I would see her tomorrow, and that no (for the fourth time) there was no need to send someone over to stay in the house until my aunt arrived.
Then I went through much the same ritual with Mr Mason—who says I am to call him Patrick: I think I remind him of Mother—before finally, the door shut behind my visitors, and I was alone in the house.
In my house.
I walked through all of the well-loved spaces of my past. Dining room, with its echoes of conversation. Sitting room, where we had read aloud and played cards. The hallway with its umbrella stand and empty hat-rack. I turned to the stairs, and climbed them to the bedrooms. Everything smelled clean, not at all like a house that had been closed for three years*. My bed, looking very small, had been made up. A doll that I had not played with since I was five had been placed on the pillow, however, there was also a small crystal vase on the table containing three hellebores: Mother had treasured her garden’s winter flowers, exclaiming with glee at any hellebores or forsythia that opened in time for our Christmas table. The bath down the hall had been laid with fresh towels and a bar of my mother’s favourite scented soap. My brother’s room was next; its shelves held toys and books that he had outgrown long before he died. Then the next room…
It took me some minutes to turn the doorknob. When I stepped inside, although the air smelt the same as all of the other rooms, there was some angle of light through the curtains, some atomic trace of the two that had shared the bed, some imperceptible touch that loosed the tears flow at last.
We had all been in the habit of leaving certain clothing behind, here in Sussex, when we returned to London or America. Even though we had not known that last time when or even if we should return, nonetheless we had walked away from garments we did not think we would wear other than here, and Mrs Mark had been no more willing to clear those away then she had my brother’s books or my childhood doll.
The wooden chest at the foot of their bed gave out a cloud of the remembered cedar smell when I opened its heavy lid. Inside lay two neatly folded stacks of country wear, Mother’s on the right, Father’s beside it. I could not imagine pulling on her clothing, not yet, but my arm reached out for a tweed jacket that was older than I. My thumb found the small mend in the hem from when he had neglected to put out his pipe before dropping it into his pocket. Levi had noticed the smoke, and had laughed uproariously at Father’s antics.
I put the jacket on. To my astonishment, other than the breadth of its torso, it very nearly fit, being only slightly long at the wrist. I closed the cedar chest, and went back downstairs, letting myself out into the garden.
Evening was falling. Everything was very still. My ears did not know what to do with the lack of noise, after so many weeks—months—without silence. The convalescent hospital had never been truly quiet, and had been followed with the days of train, then Boston, and another train and then the rhythm of the ship’s engines throbbing in the bones, and of course London never slept, but here…
The only thing I could hear was what I thought was my own pulse. However, listening more carefully, I decided it was external: the constant beat of waves against the chalk cliffs, five or six miles off. I could not remember noticing that noise before, but then, the recent days of gales and heavy storm was only now dying away. And in any event, how often had I, as a child, sat here in the garden at night? Mother did. I’d never realised why.
I lay that night in my childhood bed, feet pressed past its end, hearing only the old familiar creaks of the house. I slept eventually, and in the morning, before Mrs Mark or Mr Mason—Patrick—could come to see how I was, I bundled into my father’s tweed jacket and then his greatcoat, which I found in the niche near the front door (even the moths couldn’t make much inroads into its harsh wool). I tucked my plaits into a cap that had been given my brother by an uncle who misjudged the size of his head, and set off across the Downs for the Channel.
It was cold but marvellously clear after the recent storms and the stinking fogs of London. A few farmers were out, but at a distance, and I saw only two motorcars when I crossed the main road. For the most part, it was me and the sheep.
The white chalk headlands due south of my house rise and fall in a series of precipitous cliffs, the tallest of which is Beachy Head, a popular site of final decision for spurned lovers and the otherwise despairing. Today, peering cautiously over the edge, I was relieved to see nothing interrupting the stretch of clean shingle beach below but the lighthouse. The tide was going out, as revealed by the gleaming wet border a few feet above the lapping water, and last night’s waves had died away to nothing.
I walked back from the edge—this is a cliff, after all, which means bits fall off all the time, particularly following a heavy beating from the waves. I settled onto a tussock with the coat wrapped around me. The Channel was calm, even blue, with a few boats off in the distance. So utterly deceptive.
The Germans had Unterseeboots, what the papers called U-boats. I knew they were out there, hunting beneath that innocent blue surface. Even now, there could be a periscope coming free of the water, turning about, seeing the cliff, noticing a figure seated atop the cliff…
I shuddered and got quickly to my feet, turning to walk the nearly invisible path worn by summer ramblers. If the Kaiser decided to launch an attack on England, where would his men choose? His Zeppelin had flown over Norfolk, but a sea crossing of actual troops? If he could take France, or at least its northern coast, then any invasion would be somewhere here. Hastings, site of a previous invader’s foothold, was less than twenty miles away.
Would this summer find a return of peacetime rambling to this part of the world, or would the War be dragging on to a second August? Perhaps the Germans would already be here, and a new generation of ramblers would speak a language other than English? No, that was not possible. If invasion were threatened, the citizens of England would scramble across the countryside like ants, armed with old shotguns and pitchforks, rallying to throw the invaders off the white cliffs and fill the shingle below with their bodies. Not that shotguns and pitchforks could do much good against the sorts of guns the—
At that thought, my steps slowed to a halt. I heeled around to face the open view, and listened hard, mouth slightly dropped. That same pulse, sounding in my ears. Only it was not a pulse. What I had heard the night before, what I heard again now, came not from within my own body. Nor did it rise from the Beachy Head cliffs, where—oh, dullard that you are, Mary!—the shingle above the retreating tide was dry as could be.
That sound reached my ears from a hundred miles away. That sound was the ceaseless, massive throb of an artillery barrage.
In a patch of hell on the other side of that calm blue water, boys not much older than I lay dying into the French earth.
* The events of late 1911 are described in “Mary’s Christmas”.
The rest of Mary Russell’s War can be found here.