Four months earlier
As she often did in a time of crisis, Alice King turned to books. While others were determined to dance and knit their way through the war, Alice intended to read her way through it, especially over the next few days, during the annual family trip to Dover. The prospect of spending time with her awful cousins was bad enough, but it was the reason for the visit, the anniversary it marked, that filled her with dread. She was debating whether a second Dickens would see her through the ordeal, or whether Jane Austen was the woman for the job, when Maud said she would be off.
"Try to enjoy yourself, Alice. Even a little."
Alice settled on Austen. She pulled the book from the shelf with a weary sigh. "Thank you. I'll try. At least I'll see Kitty." The thought of seeing her sister drew a smile from Alice's lips. Dear Kitty. Alice wondered (and dreaded) what her latest news would be.
"She's dragging herself away from her beloved London after all, then?" Maud pulled on her coat despite the warm day. "I can't see the appeal. All that traffic and noise, and the possibility of air raids."
Alice agreed. She much preferred the open spaces of Kent's rolling landscapes, the big starlit skies, the audible breaths of the sea. "Kitty and London were made for each other. She only laughs when I worry about her being there, but you know what she's like. She's having a bit too much fun, if you ask me, apparently oblivious to the fact that there's a war on! Hopefully a weekend by the sea will blow a bit of sense back into her."
"And maybe Kitty will blow a bit of nonsense back into you."
"What do you mean?"
Maud hesitated as she turned in the doorway. As the former headmistress of the local school, she knew Alice well, first as a pupil and, more recently, as one of her teachers. "Don't take this the wrong way, dear, and I know it's a difficult occasion for you, but maybe a weekend with your sister is exactly what you need. I remember a time when it was you who was the adventurous one, always with a plan to go somewhere and do something. Everything doesn't always have to be so serious, even if Hitler is breathing down our necks." She offered an encouraging smile and buttoned her coat. "Anyway, I've said my bit. See you in a few days. And don't forget to leave the key under the geranium."
As the bell above the library door settled, Maud's words niggled and nagged at Alice. She was the serious, sensible one, reluctant to step outside the familiar, while Kitty lived such a vibrant, almost fictional life in comparison. And Maud was right. It hadn't always been that way, but Alice rarely thought about the girl who had been full of wild ideas and plans for great journeys-and wasn't even sure she'd recognize her if she met her now.
Alice took longer than was necessary to finish up, finding any number of ways to delay the journey to Dover. Her brother, Walter, was driving, and their mother wanted to be away before three. She shelved the last of the day's returns and tidied the display of Ministry leaflets. Her hand stilled for a moment as she considered these grim bookmarks to the progress of war. Their array of advice on all manner of things, from how to identify different types of poison gas to the unbearable business of how to humanely exterminate the family pet, was increasingly alarming. Alice remembered how appalled everyone had been when the first leaflets were issued after the announcement of war. Now, eight months on, and with the threat of Nazi invasion drawing ever closer, war had crept into every corner of life, until Ministry leaflets were ten a penny and the once unimaginable had somehow become the inevitable.
Before she left, she put up the blackout screens and took a moment to savor the musty silence. She loved this little library with all her heart, loved the brackish breeze that whispered through the gaps in the rotten old woodwork of the mullioned windows, loved that it was now home to a small collection of literary treasures sent secretly from London for safekeeping until the war was over. She wished she could put herself in safekeeping in the library until the war was over, burrow between shelves heavy with books whose endings were long imprinted on her. Yes, books were safe and certain. The world beyond the library walls was anything but.
Alice’s stomach churned as Walter turned the car into the familiar driveway of their grandmother’s house in St. Margaret’s Bay. She loved her grandmother dearly but hated this forced occasion of remembrance. She didn’t need to come here to remember her father. She remembered him-thought about him-every day. The particular date and circumstances of his death were something she wished she could forget.
"We're going down to the beach," Kitty announced, grabbing Alice's hand as they stepped out of the car. "We'll be back in time for dinner."
Before their mother could reply, and with Walter happy to leave his sisters to catch up on the latest gossip, the two of them ran off, just as they had as young girls, the sea breeze tying knots in their hair as they'd pulled off their shoes and socks and run to the water. Alice was relieved to escape the stuffy formalities of the house and head toward the small beach a short walk away. Her heart felt instantly lighter at the sight of the sea ambered by the afternoon sun, at the sense of possibility and freedom she always felt when she was near the water. "Imagine where we might go, Alice! Imagine where all the world's oceans might take us!" As she recalled her father's words, spoken over their last game of chess, she heard the echo of a life that wasn't hers anymore, and as she looked toward the coastline of France, clearly visible in the distance, she imagined Hitler looking back at Dover's majestic white cliffs, carefully working out the next move in his own sinister game. His recent invasion of France and the Low Countries had brought the war terrifyingly close to England's doorstep.
"Do you really think he'll invade?" Alice aimed a pebble across the unusually calm water of the English Channel, but her technique was terrible, and rather than skipping across the surface, it sank without trace. "I know everyone's expecting it, but I still can't believe it will happen. Not here. Not to us."
Kitty laughed at her sister's pitiful attempt. "You need to get down lower and flick from the wrist as you throw. Look. Like this." Kitty's pebble skipped elegantly, six times, across the water. "See. It's easy." Kitty made everything look easy. She was the swan of the family, effortless and graceful. Alice had always felt like a waddling mother duck beside her. "And yes. I suspect he will invade," Kitty continued. "The question is: When? Hopefully not tonight. Invasion would be bad enough. Getting stuck here with Cousin Lucy would be truly horrifying."
Alice soon tired of skimming pebbles and looked for shells instead as they started to walk along the shoreline together. "I hate being in this constant state of almost war, always wondering, always on high alert." If Hitler did invade, the south coast counties of Kent and Sussex would be the first to see the Nazi flags. Her stomach heaved at the thought. "It's so awful-isn't it?-to think that just twenty miles of sea separates us now."
Kitty linked her arm through her sister's. "Your problem is you've had too much time to think about things since the children left."
Alice had certainly missed her busy days in the classroom since the school had closed last September following the announcement of war. She missed the unpredictable exuberance of the children, their curious minds, their innocence. Teaching was a demanding job, but one she loved. She was good with children-they often made more sense to her than adults-and had quietly hoped to take her teaching experience further and apply for a position at the prestigious Benenden Girls' School. But the evacuation of children from coastal towns to the countryside had interrupted her plans. Still, Alice hoped the possibility might return along with the children, whenever this was all over.
"You must be bored silly, stuck at home with Mother," Kitty said. "I honestly don't know how you stand it."
"I don't have much choice, do I? You know she doesn't manage well when she's on her own."
Kitty shook her head. "I know she's taken advantage of your good nature for far too long, more like. She can't expect you to stay with her in Whitstable forever."
"I don't intend to stay there forever. And I'm not stuck at home. I'm volunteering at the library, in case you'd forgotten."
Kitty laughed lightly. "Oh yes. 'Read for victory!' Isn't that your slogan? I sincerely doubt books are going to save us if Hitler does come marauding over the Channel. What will you do, fire Shakespeare at him from a cannon? Death by a Dickens and two Austens?"
"It doesn't sound like a bad way to go. And, actually, it's books we need to save from him. Anyway, you shouldn't scoff. There's a lot to be said for reading a good book and forgetting about the bloody war for a while. Entertainment is good for morale. People need a way to distract themselves. Talking of which, how did it go with Terry?"
"It's Terence, and he was a charming distraction until an air raid interrupted things. False alarm, as it happened, but it rather ruined the moment."
Alice laughed. "Yes, I suppose it would!"
"Anyway, it's you who needs a Terence, not me!"
"I had one, briefly. And we both know how that turned out. I'm perfectly happy without a man to complicate things."
Kitty grabbed Alice's hands. "Patrick Swift was a rotten swine. Not all men are like him-some are actually rather lovely-and time isn't exactly on your side. You'll be thirty soon, for goodness' sake!"
"Not for another two years. And thirty isn't that old."
"It's ancient!" Kitty laughed and threw her arms skyward in exasperation. "Don't you ever wonder, Alice? Where else? What else? Who else? You're such an odd thing, content in your narrow little life."
"Ouch!" Kitty's words landed on Alice like nettle stings. She knew her life must seem small and dull compared to Kitty's vibrant existence in London, sharing a flat with other girls, dancing at weekends, working for a new government department in Mayfair. But life didn't always feel narrow to Alice. Mostly, it felt familiar. Comfortable. Safe. Or at least it had until Hitler had invaded France. "Am I really that dull?"
"Yes!" Kitty pulled Alice affectionately into her side as they turned and made their way back toward the house. "Well, not always. You're occasionally dull," she concluded. "Mostly, I think you're afraid."
"Of change. Of doing something different. Being someone different. I want you to do something, Alice. Something reckless and unexpected. Something brave. Run away and join the bloody circus if you must. Just promise me you won't spend the rest of your life rotting away at Willow Cottage with Mother like a wizened old Bramley."
"Goodness, Kitty. 'Narrow and dull.' 'A wizened old Bramley.' Are there any other insults you'd like to throw at me?" Alice punched Kitty's arm fondly.
Kitty laughed. "Plenty more insults where those came from, but I'll save them for our cousins."
But deep down, Alice knew Kitty was right. Her work at the library, surrounded by books, filled her heart with joy, but a part of her longed to do something reckless and unexpected and brave. She just didn't know what, or how.
A loud whistle caught their attention. Alice turned to see Walter waving from the path, indicating that they should come back now. He was so like their father that, for a moment, she could almost believe it was him, waving his daughters back up from the beach, a proud smile on his face.
"Come on. Race you back!" Kitty set off at a sprint. "Last one there has to sit beside Cousin Lucy at dinner!"
Alice followed in futile pursuit. "That's not fair! Katherine King, you're a terrible cheat!"
As they ran, a brisk sea breeze ballooned out their skirts and sent Kitty's hat tumbling wildly along the sand. They chased it and laughed until their sides hurt, and for a few carefree moments the prospect of German invasion was forgotten. That was the exasperating thing about the war. It was everywhere and everything, and yet it was nowhere and nothing. It was an impossible riddle, a puzzle without a solution.
After dinner that evening, Alice excused herself with an imaginary migraine. She lay awake in the small guest bedroom beneath the eaves, listening to the rattle and creak of the rafters as a summer storm rolled in across the south coast. Her father had always loved a good storm. He’d taught her not to be afraid as they’d counted the seconds between the roll of thunder and the crack of lightning, calculating how close it was and then how far away as the seconds reassuringly increased and the storm passed.
But some storms never left. The aftermath of his death still rumbled and roared, and grief still raged in Alice's heart as she counted the seconds and willed the winds to settle and the storm to blow itself out.
Lily Nicholls hardly noticed the blossom that spring. It didn't last long anyway, scattered by unseasonal winds that easily blew such fragile things away and carried the ugly business of war, and Hitler, ever closer in return. Like most Londoners, Lily was jittery. The air-raid warnings in her South London terrace had, so far, been false alarms, but elsewhere, people weren't so lucky. Recent reports of civilian casualties in the Netherlands were truly awful. It was unimaginable, and yet the facts were unavoidable, printed in the newspaper alongside cheering advertisements for Bournville Cocoa and HP Sauce because life carried on, even when it didn't.
In the small back kitchen of number thirteen Elm Street, Lily absorbed the latest awful news with her heart in her mouth. She read out the occasional line or two from the newspaper.
Mrs. Hopkins, her neighbor, tutted and sighed and said war was a terrible, terrible thing. "And they're talking about another wave of evacuation now," she added as she rolled out an unappealing gray circle of potato pastry for a Homity pie. "Sending the kiddies overseas this time. They'll have us all shipped off to the moon next."
Copyright © 2023 by Hazel Gaynor. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.