An extract from the opening to Island Song, Madeleine Bunting’s first novel.
Newly married, Helene lives on the island of Guensey. The year is 1940 and the telephone cable connecting the island to the British mainland has been cut in case of German invasion.
The girls were coming – she could hear their voices. Felicity and Annie were unusually subdued; both had been told by their parents to come home early from St Peter Port. They pulled off their dresses and folded them on the stone bench in the shelter, leaning against the old granite pillars as they tugged on their costumes. Finally they piled their hair up onto their heads and put on swimming hats, fastened under the chin.
They swam in the big pool, diving into the glassy water with arms outstretched as they had been taught. As usual, they raced each other – crawl and then breaststroke – for several circuits. Before the war, the three of them had been in the swimming team and at the annual tournament spectators had crowded along the edge of this pool and perched on the rocks above to cheer them. Now just the seagulls and pigeons witnessed their efforts. Helene won, as usual, her long limbs slicing cleanly through the fresh seawater, refilled by the recent tide.
Afterwards, they floated on their backs as the water stilled. Helene stared up into the pale blue sky and watched the scraps of cloud to find shapes. This was once a familiar pleasure but now nothing soothed her nagging anxieties. Her husband gone within days of their marriage, her brother on the same boat, and then, worst of all, Lily. All of them across the Channel in England.
The girls climbed out and lay on the rocks in the sun, licking the salt off their lips, and feeling their skin tighten as the seawater dried. They dressed in a few minutes, and helped each other to tuck up their damp hair, and pin on their hats. Helene’s long, wavy hair was the most troublesome; there was too much to neatly fit under a hat. Annie and Felicity offered to help carry Helene’s bags back to the stop to catch the last bus home to Torteval. They were heavy – she had been lucky to find flour and sugar. The sun was dipping behind the woods and the pools were now in shade. Only Castle Cornet still caught the sun, ruddy red. As the girls walked back towards the South Esplanade, a mother was packing up her deckchair on the sands of Havelet Bay, and gathering her children’s buckets and spades. They had built a castle.
Annie told them that she had heard another boat was due to take passengers to England any day. Helene knew it was unlikely now France had fallen. She would remember later how the mother was calling to her boy, who was running in and out of the waves, when three black dots appeared above the horizon. She watched them coming nearer, half listening to Annie’s talk of the carnations and freesias being dug up and the glasshouses replanted with vegetables – they would need food not flowers in this war.
The dots became planes. They were flying low and straight towards them. Annie and Felicity followed Helene’s gaze and all three girls stopped to stare.
‘It’s the Germans,’ cried Annie, panicking.
‘We can’t tell yet,’ replied Helene, her voice thin. If they waited until they could see the markings, would it be too late? Did they need to take shelter? Were the planes heading to the airport?
‘Come on – we’ve got to hide,’ Annie screamed. She was pulling them both back. Only Helene resisted, paralysed by fear and indecision. When she turned round, the other girls were running across the esplanade towards the doorway of a café. It was closed, but they hammered on the door. She caught up with them. Now she could hear the juddering of the planes’ engines, so low they must be planning to land. Annie was right – they needed to get off the seafront. The door suddenly opened and all three stumbled into the café. Mr Duquemin was in an apron. He had been mopping the floor after closing up. The chairs were stacked on top of the tables. He looked over the girls out to sea.
‘Quick, in the back,’ he muttered.
Several other people were now behind them, jostling to get in. More were running across the esplanade towards the café. Helene briefly glanced back and glimpsed two planes, low over the harbour. They were dropping what looked like black packages – then she realized, with a start, that they were bombs. She heard the first crump of an explosion and saw a plume of smoke rise over the quayside, where the tomato lorries had been waiting. Then she heard the sharp rap of machine-gun bullets bouncing off the road and roofs, and glass shattering. People were crowding to the back of the café, where a door led to the kitchens.
‘On the floor, everyone, take cover, take cover,’ someone shouted hoarsely, again and again.
Helene and Felicity pushed through and ducked under a long table. They clutched their knees and buried their heads. The building shook with each explosion. Glass smashed – the café windows must have gone. At one point the sound of the planes faded, and Helene raised her head. People were still pushing in and some were trying to make their way through to a door down to the cellar. Others were crouching or sitting on the floor. After a few breathless moments, the planes flew back for another round.
Felicity’s plump body squeezed against her, flinching at each thump. Helene grabbed her clammy hand and held it tightly. Annie must be in the basement.
Another girl crawled in beside them. She was gasping for breath and had blood running down the side of her face. She pressed close to Helene.
‘Are you all right?’ asked Helene, in a pause between explosions.
‘It’s glass,’ said the girl, sobbing between half-caught breaths.
Helene could see how the blood was matted in her hair. She had been cut in several places.
‘I’m all right – b-but there are bodies in the harbour – men under the lorries,’ she stammered.
Helene took hold of her hand and held it as tightly as Felicity’s. It was the only comfort she could offer as the explosions and machine-gun fire continued. Every time the planes’ engines grew more distant, Helene hoped it was ending, only for the sound to come round again, and she would brace her body once more. The brief quiet gaps between explosions were the most terrifying. Would the next bomb hit them?
When the noise of engines and gunfire fell away completely, Helene listened intently. Was it finally over? The fire-engine sirens sounded the all clear. Later, when Helene was told the raid had lasted about an hour, she was incredulous. It had been the longest hour of her life.
The girl Helene had befriended was hysterical. A woman was dabbing at her cuts with a handkerchief to dislodge the fragments of glass. Helene and Felicity stumbled back into the dining area of the café. The floor was covered with broken glass. Amongst the white faces emerging from the cellar, Helene spotted Annie’s. It was a short moment of intense relief. Ahead, through what had been the window, they could see fires in the harbour. Thick acrid smoke filled the sky. Helene tasted grit and her eyes began to smart.
The girls hesitated – where to go, what to do? In front of them the body of a woman lay on the ground. One man, then another, came running up to the prostrate figure. In the distance, an ambulance siren sounded. Helene looked across the beach, where an hour before she had watched the boy playing in the waves. To her horror, she could see the small dark form of a body sprawled on the sand.
The girls stumbled along the esplanade, dazed. They had a vague sense that they needed to help. In the harbour, they glimpsed through the smoke the wreck of bombed warehouses and lorries, and they could hear the furious crackling and snapping of flames. A policeman ran past the girls, his face red, his breathing hoarse. Some of the smoke had begun to clear. Here was the bus stop where Helene had been about to wait for her bus home. Nearby, a lorry was overturned, its crates scattered on the ground. Tomatoes had spilled across the road and been crushed in the melee of running feet. Helene stared at the red stains and, with a start, saw blood had mingled with the tomato juice.
‘Get back! Get back!’ An air-raid warden, a band on his arm, was pushing them roughly. He leaned over and shouted in their frightened faces. ‘Go home. Now.’
In the days that followed, Helene could not speak beyond a brief whisper. Nanna made her herbal teas and insisted she stay near her, sitting in the kitchen of The Vicarage by the warmth of the stove. The presence of each was a comfort to the other. For several hours after the bombing, Helene had not been able to get word home that she was safe. In Torteval, on the other side of the island, her old nanny and Father had listened in horror to the bombing raid on St Peter Port. Thirty-three had been killed.
Helene repeatedly saw in her mind the images of blood spreading over the granite cobbles. One body lying beside a bombed lorry had been twisted at an awkward angle. Scattered around him were carnations, their buds still tightly closed. Even worse was the memory of the boy playing in the waves. What kind of men were these Germans, who could strafe a child playing on a beach? It wasn’t only the bombing which had swallowed her words. She was choking on the disturbing feeling that the world was unsteady – that nothing was holding, and that the fragments seemed to presage horror to come. Nanna stroked her hair as if she were a little girl again.