Most of the places and events in this book are real, as are some of the minor
characters; the major characters are found only in my subconscious.
I lived in Wantisden, East Suffolk, as a schoolboy. Later, when my parents lived in the
shadow of Orford Castle, I worked as a journalist on the East Anglian Daily Times. East
Suffolk and its history haunt me.
Percival says he used to stand on the shingle, looking across to the island, watching the
Americans clubbing the mermaids to death. He was a schoolboy then and that is how he
remembers it. Like watching the hunters clubbing baby fur seals on the northern
Canadian ice flows.
Later he saw engravings on the walls of George Pickering’s library and it looked as
though a group of monks was doing exactly the same thing.
Percival says he never went over to the island, not even later, when he was an adult. It
only took five or six minutes in a small boat with an outboard engine. Of course, being
wartime, there was no way he could have crossed over when he was a schoolboy. Once
he was roughly told to leave the shingle strand and get the hell out of there. Nobody
was supposed to know about the clubbing of the mermaids. We are still not supposed to
know. Too secret even for the Official Secrets Act.
Nobody was supposed to know about the rockets either; or the radar; or the radioactive
fallout. So many things that we all knew about, that we all know about, and yet never
speak about to each other. Out of fear? Fear of what? Well, careless talk still costs
lives. So we all take care.
Today most of the island is still off limits. Because of the birds. They started clubbing
them to death too, at first. Not the American airmen or the monks this time; the nuclear
people. So many kinds of people came to the shingle strand and went over to the island
and found some new devilry to perform. Not George Pickering. He was just a watcher,
like young Percival.
Percival has always watched and listened. He knows where all the skeletons are buried,
as they say. But then you only have to walk along the beach to the sand cliffs to see the
skeletons sticking out of the cliff side, the odd bone or two dropping onto the sand. Fine
thing for your dog to bring home from an evening walk.
There are whole streets, towns, under the sea there. You can hear the noise rising up to
the surface. Well, Percival can. You get it in layers; the coarse threats of the invaders
and the carousing of the monks and the screech of the frightened birds and the screams
of the mermaids, of muffled tolling of bells; the hoarse throats of the juvenile jets and
the steady hum from the nuclear reactor; and the kind of noise sand makes.
What a lot of heroes were here and all handy with the club, the blunt instrument. Bats in
the Bawdsey belfry, monks astride mermaids, castles in the air with turrets full of guns,
schoolchildren with their heads between their legs in case they needed to react in a
hurry to escape the escaped nuclei.
It can blow along the beach. You need to turn your collar up. Things are grey most of
the time, a petrified forest grey. Dabs of grey green and sometimes a bit of browny red,
a roof for instance. But the buildings are low and the topography takes over. Percival
says the teacher used the word ‘topography’ when they sat together on the cliffs at
Bawdsey. Not real cliffs and she wasn't a real teacher; high sand hills and what used to
be known as a student teacher. They loved each other and never knew it.
You'd think the ruins of the priories and the big old church would stand out loud and
clear but they don't. They just disappear into the grey topography. The nuclear reactor
looks like a sandcastle from an upturned bucket left too long on the beach and turned
grey and about to slop back into soft murky sand. There's not much in the way of trees.
Lots of marram grass though and broom and those creepers that have big yellow
flowers and crawl slowly on their bellies across the sand and stones in a last grasp
attempt at the high tide. The shingle makes a sucking noise that used to give Percival
erections when he was a boy, just the sound of it. Now he hears the drowned indrawn
breath of those who were killed.
Let’s come back from the sea now. Can only take so much of that monster at a time.
Back up the shingle onto the sand and back onto the heathland and back towards the
forest. You can feel the foam rubber of the heath beneath your boots, and up your
nostrils cuts the tang of golden gorse like broken bracken slicing into the fingers. But
time for a run through the trenches on the way. No bones through the walls of these
virginal slits. Just the occasional seaside beach hut with a small group of banjo players
in striped jackets and straw boaters. Oh, Percival did like to be beside Edith Sitwell in
those days, only in a book of course.
The Colonel showed Percival the buried beach party huts when he was still a captain.
Ranks rose rather suddenly when the horns of new invaders' helmets broke the North
Sea horizon. A lowly lieutenant when he first showed Percival the inquisitive outline of
the bren gun. The zig zag of underground trenchwork that would protect us all from the
Hun. Happy days, whistle while you work. Now it’s hum along to the plutonium song,
these days of post-happiness harmony. How would mon capitaine react to the reactor on
his beach? Once more onto the beach. Will they never leave it alone?
In those ripping yarn years, Percival threw rocks at the sky to down the dorniers, not
knowing that in a few years’ time on the North Atlantic run he would be downing
deniers clock-stitched for seduction. And even later dowzing derniers in a tarot spin of
island lovos. What’s all that about? Just Percival thinking out loud. A dangerous habit
that he has only developed lately. Have to watch it Percival We’re all listening you
know. Especially George Pickering.
What a life, Percival says to himself, what a wonderful whirl. While still his feet sink
softly into purple sponge and golden blooms disguise the needles. What webs the
deceitful deities weave. A calm day on a peaceful heath with a gentle sea sucking
pebbles in the sun. Testing. Testing. No mike for the banjo boys. Only Bawdsey's
bawdy boffins at home on the range from whence the avocets have flown. The castle's
jagged tower sundials its shadow across the island. On your right, the technocrats bleep
echoes at the clouds; on your left, the p.b.i. dig holes for holiday huts. All's farce in love
and war. But you've got to keep your eyes on the grey horizon because there's just that
little strip of shingly beach and just that little strip of poultice grey water and then
there's the horizon and God knows what's bobbing up and down like that, waiting to
come over the top and fix bayonet our hash. The Romans aren't here to defend us now
against the northern European hordes. Even the Americans have gone, well most of
them. Percival remembers the Yanks. Castles in the air. Pigs could fly and A-10
warthogs zoomed across the shingle, looking for tanks in the Persian Gulf.
Well it's only just over that grey horizon. No wonder the avocets don't know whether to
stay around the place or just piss off like they did a hundred years ago. Hurricanes,
Yanks, mermaid bashers, giant rats - yes giant rats – heavy-handed hat-makers and
nuclear weapons researchers have all given the little feathered funsters a hard time.
Do you know they wrote in the Guardian that this was “a bleak five-mile stretch of
coastal shingle bank and salt marsh”? How boring. They hadn’t even noticed the newly-
appointed regional director of the trust set up to look after the area was named Merlin
Merlin. Son of the water. Make no mistake, the gods have a great sense of humour.
And this is the land of the gods. Past present and future. What do you think that ruined
gateway down toward the river was originally built for? Many a god visited there and
met with the local deities from the forest. Haunt of more than coot and hern. These
unplashy fens have felt the foot of saxon pirate, unclean monk and murderous queen.
Stones dragged from France and atomic cores from hell; dinosaur shit (we’ll come to
that later, and the giant rats) and treasure ships from beneath the heath. Those
feathered desperates who chose to dwell on these sandling shores have been eaten by
the plague and chewed by the GI. Prise open the bar door of the Oyster, strike up a
conversation at the Vulcan, put on your Benny Britten t-shirt and join in the fun. We're
going to split more than hairs before we are done
Percival’s mind spins on. There is mystery afoot. Mystery and mayhem. Percival is no
longer a respecter of names and reputations. There's a fine gang of thieves and
malathumpians hanging back in the wings. Percival the journalist is no respecter of time
now either. A non-linear web is woven here. It is one place in the British Isles where
you can stand in the centre of the old-fashioned clock, where you may split the binary.
Here, you need only adjust your receptors; your senses, your thoughts. Close down the
database and let yourself be available. There is a tilt in time here, a space where
cosmic cobwebs string. A place to start a quest. Percival can go on for hours like this
when he’s in a good mood. Gets it from George Pickering.
Although we'd all feel more at ease with a linear narrative, unfortunately for the here
and now, everything is here and every time is now. You'll begin to notice it for yourself.
When you walk among the oaks near the old spiritual power centre that is Butley
Priory. When you lean against the twentieth century nuclear powerstation wall at
Sizewell. When you look into the eyes of the barmaid at the Butley Oyster or exchange
nods with the barman at the Sizewell Vulcan.
The water flows backwards in the creek. Black death is strapped to the bottom of the
warthog aircraft. Rape and pillage come slithering over the sand and the prior puts his
prick in the pickle jar for safety. See, Percival is off again. Well let’s blame it on
Percival, a scapegoat for all of us now.
So, pause for a drink. Mineral water will be okay, though you may find the scent of a GI
gin and orange seeping up your nose. We're in the White Horse Hotel in Ipswich, one
time haunt of American servicemen and before that, haunt of Charles Dickens and Mr
Pickwick and, long before that, the haunt of Cardinal Wolsey. Yes, true.
Percival owes us a bit of an explanation. We are not here by accident. We've come to
meet Cardinal Wolsey. His dad runs the butcher's round the corner. Crafty old cardinal
this one. But you probably know that. Used to bring the meat here, after they'd killed it
out the back of the shop and let the blood run down the open drains into the river's
ooze. (That’s the River Ouse to you). Pigs and dogs roaming the narrow streets in those
days and Bob Wolsey was known to grab the passing animal and bring its breath to a
halt among the household rubbish. “Take it to the White Horse Tom.” Then Tom’s
father bought the White Horse. Tom was more attracted to the foreign seamen and
their women. He wasn't at all pleased when dad decided to send him to Oxford for a
Later Tom got mixed up with the Hampton Court Henrys and the royal mail and one of
the royal females and all those life dehancing activities that have no place here at the
Horse. We’re here now in 1515 and, for all intents and purposes, Cardinal Tom is ruling
England; King Henry likes to hunt and dance, and listen to music and fuck himself
senseless. Not our Tom, well not in public. Guess what he really wants? He wants to be
Inland a bit now, to Thetford, and Thomas Wolsey is enjoying the pleasures of the
innkeeper's daughter and producing from her bucolic body the future Dean of Wells. He
made the dear girl’s brother his own confessor. Bob the butcher's boy; Cardinal ‘go-on-
get-yourself-divorced’ Wolsey. But he's fallen out of favour now so be very careful
what you say to him when he comes back here into the Ipswich pub. If he wants to talk
about the Duke of Oxford that's all right, but if he starts on about the Duke of Norfolk
then make for the exit. Percival’s going to leave you on your own for a bit. Hang around
long enough and Charles Dickens will make an entrance, disguised as Mr Pickwick, if
you're lucky. Well, maybe not tonight. A bit of a god-forsaken bar this, nowadays.
A story of cunning men, sizewell nuclear reactor, American airmen in Suffolk, and a merman
This airfield is one of a dozen constructed urgently in Suffolk during World War II. It’s
situated approximately one mile outside Lavenham, just off the A1141 Ipswich to Bury St
Edmunds Road. Take the first left turn past the old watertower, signposted to Smithwood
Green Only, then follow the winding track to the T junction and then turn left and you will
be on the orbital taxiway of the airfield. The control tower/ops room, runways, dispersals
and billets are mostly still in existence. As the base is privately owned, permission to visit
has to be obtained from the owner, Mr David Alston on 0284 828226. Of course he may
have sold it by the time you read this.
This is where we catch Percival, reading the “not to be taken away” information “for
returning USAAF personnel intending to visit their wartime airfields.” The main runway
ran east/west. The ammunition and the bomb dumps were over on the left, fuel stores on
the right. The control tower was between Elms Farm and Lodge Farm. The mess was to
the south of the tower.
The runways were built in 1943 - from the rubble of houses destroyed in London by the
Luftwaffe the previous year. The 487th Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force, United States
Army Air Force, flew their fortresses into France and Germany from here. On August 8,
1944 they bombed Canadian troops near Caen, by mistake. Great place for quarrying
stone and bringing it back to England in the old days.
At Lavenham Percival is seeking a castle in the air; actually a fortress that had once been
in the air. He starts at the old Swan Inn. Birds of a feather. Enough oak beams to stock all
the romantic television series to come. Percival lets the well-upholstered chair enfold him.
There’s an open fire burning; just for him it seems. The crackle of wood turning into
flames. A time to listen, to let the voices in the walls seep out into the warm room. Voices
of clothiers speaking Flemish, not a language he understands; voices of men called Tixtor
and Cissor and Dyer; voices of men called le Webbe and de Vere; the voice of John
Newton, one-time landlord of The Swan and steward to the Earl of Oxford who was the
latest in a line of John de Veres that started in Norman times and brought the sign of the
boar and the five-pointed star to the town. Percival has studied all this over the past few
years. He’s just never heard the voices before.
Percival sinks deep into the slow vibration of the timbers. He hears a big band playing
swingtime, and instead of his imagined men in Elizabethan dress, there is what looks
suspiciously like Major Glenn Miller taking his last drink in the bar. And there’s
Operations Officer 453BG Jimmy Stewart and Walter Matthau and Jack Kennedy’s big
brother Joseph so this has to be before the autopilot of Kennedy’s Consolidated B24J
Liberator let the craft be blown to pieces, and Joe with it, over the sleepy countryside that
surrounded the Swan. Then Fred walks in.
It’s Fred that Percival has come to see. Croix de Guerre, Order of Kutuzov, Legion of
Merit, Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross with two oak leaf clusters, the Air Medal
with four clusters. What kind of a Fred is this?
What would you recommend for a migraine, Percival asks. And Fred says bed.
Sir, says Percival.
What’s that for, Fred asks.
I forgot to call you sir.
General will do, says Fred.
His breath smells of Bourbon. Suddenly Percival smells charred flesh and metal and the
room is full of the sound of ME 109 guns and explosions to his left and a voice to his right
calling, “This is General Fred Castle - do you hear me? Bail out! Get the hell out of here!
All of you!” The flames roar in the open fireplace. Percival sees the whole drama, right
there in the fireplace.
Fred flew thirty combat missions after he’d insisted on being put back on active duties.
Percival can hear the general’s voice talking to him calmly from the now gentle flicker of
“We’ll all be off tomorrow Percival, the entire Eighth. Guess I can tell you. Be a bit late in
the day by the time you tell anybody.” The General laughs a short snorting sound into his
bourbon. “Long way from Manila,” he says.
Fred was born in Manila, graduated from West Point in 1930. No way he should have
been flying out of Lavenham. He was Chief of Staff goddammit. But on Christmas Eve
1944, he insisted on leading 2000 aircraft on a giant bombing raid over Germany.
Engine failure. Lost speed and manoeuvrability. Wouldn’t jettison bombs over friendly
region. Peeled off on his own with ME 109s attacking. Cannon shells hit left wing and then
oxygen equipment ignited and the bomb load was threatened; made the crew bail out then
the right wing was hit, fuel tank exploded and plane plunged 12,000 feet before the whole
thing exploded. The Medal of Honour was awarded posthumously.
Percival says “My name’s Percival - I need to talk with you, general.”
But there’s nobody in the lounge except Percival and his empty glass and his pile of
papers. He thinks about what he was doing while General Fred was being blown up. Who
did Percival spend the war with? Well, there was Weedy Smith who had funny silver-
coloured hair. He was at school with Percival and he said to him, “Why do the girls in our
school like utility knickers? Because one yank and they’re down.”
The Defence boffins brought in the prop men and set designers from Elstree. They made
mock-up aircraft on mock runways all over East Anglia, to decoy the German bombers
away from Lavenham and Sudbury and Martlesham and Woodbridge and Bentwaters.
They should have kept Major Miller back on the set, with Ray McKinley on drums and
Mel Powell on piano playing My Guy’s Come Back. In the sound studios at Pinewood,
they made God Is My Co-Pilot and One Of Our Aircraft Is Missing. Nine thousand real
American airmen were missing, presumed dead.
General Fred is back in the fireplace; he’d forgotten his cap and his gloves. Percival asks,
“Why did you do it? Did you believe God was your co-pilot? Were you fighting for
freedom, truth, for a better world?”
General Fred picks up the glass with the remains of his Bourbon and swirls it around,
looks Percival straight in the eye. “I fought because I was a warrior,” he says. He downs
what’s left of his drink in one smooth gulp. “Honour,” he says, “Death before dishonour.
The only way for a warrior Percival. God never forsakes a warrior.”
General Fred seems to have grown a couple feet in height and, from where Percival looks
up at him out of his low armchair, the general’s shoulders look as though they are
supporting the oak beam that supports the roof that holds the sky at bay.
“Talking with you like this has been an extremely delicate manoeuvre, Percival, more
difficult than that old Immelman loop.”
General Fred fades fast. No clap of thunder, nothing dramatic, just fade to black.
Percival drives back towards the coast until he comes to Martlesham where the Roman
garrisons built forts to keep out the Saxons who came over the sea from Germany; where
the RAF had their fighter squadrons to keep out the Huns who flew over the horizon from
Martlesham is where Maurice and Margot Hare have settled down after Maurice
returned from his seventieth birthday and the Whitbread round the world yacht race.
“Tell me,” Percival asks Maurice, “about the time you tested the Wellington bomber on
the airstrip here and how it crashed and how you survived and became chief test pilot for
Vickers. Tell me about the fighter squadrons here at Martlesham and how they fought off
the German bombers.”
Maurice Hare is eighty five years old and he doesn’t look a bit like Spencer Tracy in Test
Pilot. He blinks at Percival and says “There’s nothing to tell. I just did it.”
Percival mumbles stories like this to George Pickering before he falls asleep in one of
George’s armchairs. He usually finishes up at George’s place after he’s been on one of
his history searches. He could write his newspaper stories from handouts in ten minutes.
Yet he would spend days, weeks even, going deeper and deeper into the past. Sucked
backwards seemingly despite himself.
George has been working in the archives too. When the Romans pulled out of Suffolk the
Germans moved in, Angles and Saxons on hit and run attacks from across the North Sea.
They started settling in large numbers. Woden and Frig came with them. King Raedwald
ruled from Rendlesham, just up the road from Martlesham; he was king of all the Saxon
kings of England and he was buried across the river from Woodbridge. Of course he had
to lie low while the Second World War was on. The army turned his burial ground into a
combat training ground, dragging their bren guns across the heath while the old Saxon lay
low beneath them, clutching his enormous sword in his burial ship. You can see how
George’s research and Percival’s slip into each other.
The Saxons used the River Deben - the ‘deep one’ - for easy transport and settled along
its banks, where the Woodbridge and the Martlesham airfields are. In the Second World
War four thousand Americans came to live at Bentwaters, just up the road from
Woodbridge. They were still sending off warthogs to fight for the oil companies in the Gulf
more than fifty years later. The warriors of Woodbridge. Just doing what a warrior’s got
to do. I am just obeying orders sir – who are we killing this year?.
“Has anything really changed?” asks Percival, “In fifty years of American servicemen at
the Butley/Bentwaters base, there have been B17s, P-51s then RAF Mustangs, F-86A
Sabres, the first in Europe, then 1955 the F-84F Thunderstreaks. F-101 Voodoos in ’58
and then the Phantoms in ’65. F-4D’s, and F-86Ds with mighty mouse rocket projectiles.
Now A-10 tank busters, to bust Iraqi balls. I guess the letters and numbers change.”
“And the smart kill power,” say the quiet men in the Crown.
The Crown stands at the crossroads. It’s where Percival goes to do his thinking when he’s
in Woodbridge. At the crossroads. Percival can remember when the first Americans
arrived in Woodbridge. Like a conquering army. Flash uniforms and arrogance. But they
“Where’s Fred Castle now?” asks Percival. “Where are the warriors?”
The American servicemen in the lounge bar wear stone-washed, brushed denim and soft
suede Bally brogues, mushroom-toned cashmere cardigans and gentle green Hermes
cravats. They fondle electronic pocket books like rosaries.
“Such was the sophistication and range of military equipment used in the Second World
War that, for the first time in man’s turbulent history of conflict, the machine dominated
the scene,” says Percival. He is reading from one of the reunion leaflets.
“Second World War,” says one of the quiet men as his eyes try to time walk those distant
“It’s a USAAF briefing paper,” says Percival. “Nineteen ninety two will mark the fiftieth
anniversary of the USAAF’s arrival in East Anglia. It is this anniversary that we wish to
commemorate with a series of special events that will be a tribute to all who took part,
airmen and civilians, Americans and Britons. The East Anglian Tourist Board aims to
provide a structure that will encourage visitors.”
Percival contemplates the silent kshatriyas. Death before dishonour; he’s seen it
somewhere in his past, tattooed on a forearm; before it became a tactical deployment
group computer icon.
“We’re pulling out,” says one of the cashmered men.
“Fifty years they’ve been here,” says the landlord to Percival, as though the Americans
can’t understand what he is saying. The landlord is dressed in regulation marks and
sparks leisurewear. The quiet men hold their positions like a promo tableau for a CIA
sitcom. “Fifty years of American occupation,” says the landlord. “Four thousand
servicemen and five thousand relatives. They’re going to leave a big hole in the local
economy,” he says. “Houses, schools, supermarkets, churches, bowling alleys - you name
it - all going to be empty. There’s more than two thousand acres of development at
Bentwaters you know.”
He speaks to Percival in a nice chatty way.
Percival remembers the open heath and the bracken and chasing the rabbits with his little
old dog and the little old black death church and the first bulldozers looming up over the
gorse and fern and wiping out the landscape, wiping it flat and clean for the little old
Americans to set foot.
The landlord has turned to re-enter the past through the fading memory photographs on
the wall of the lounge, the Liberators and Fortresses; groups of flyers in leather jackets,
cigars, smiles, posed outside the ancient wooden tidal mill.
“Used to be some little old cottages down there called Bentwaters,” the landlord says. He
turns from the photographs to give Percival a smile of we’re together in all of this and
says, “Very quiet here tonight.” Percival keeps up his end of the smile for a long time
before he says “I thought they might keep it for the F1-11s. Move ‘em over from the
RAF place at Lakenheath. Couple of miles closer to Libya, you know. When they get the
itch to blow somebody up.” The landlord likes that. He gives Percival a heavy wink.
Percival steps outside and it is the forties again. Weedy Smith is stroking the curved back
of the Hudson and chanting, “One yank and they’re down, run ‘em out of town.” When he
sees Percival he says excitedly, “There’s two darkies come in this one, honest, black as
coal holes. You should see the birds jump up and down when they saw the darkies. How
they get in it Percy? You have to get down on your hands and knees to get into this
chariot! Hey! Listen to that jive! The joint’s really jumping tonight! Whooee!”
Percival pulls up his socks and buttons up his lumber-jacket and imagines he can feel that
incredibly soft material the Americans had for their uniforms. He’d love clothes as soft as
that, one day. Right now, he’d like one of those great big bomber jackets with real wool
inside that curls out onto the raw leather like chest hair out of an open necked shirt. He
shouts something at Weedy and pushes off on his bicycle knowing he has to get home
before dark. “See you at school,” he shouts back over his shoulder.
It was generally assumed the RAF would want to take over such lavish facilities, Percival
wrote in The East Anglian Daily Times. The twin airfields could probably have absorbed
its entire force of Jaguars and Harriers. But the Ministry of Defence decided that such a
move would be uneconomical. Now, the search was on for an alternative use. Among the
first to take an interest was the chief executive of Ipswich borough council. The housing
estates could provide homes for Ipswich’s 3,500 homeless. However, the Ministry of
Defence had first refusal on the accommodation.
Some of the married quarters could be used, at least temporarily, to house army families
returning from Germany as the Rhine army disbanded. Other Whitehall departments
might also be interested or the housing could be sold. Two estates on the Bentwaters site
have just been completed, with the USAF apparently locked into a 10-year lease it no
longer needs. By RAF standards the accommodation is excellent and it compares well
with some older council estates, said the council’s ceo. If the Government does not need
it, some of the land could go back to farming, he rather coyly told the aldermen. “And,
gentlemen and ladies,” he said, “you may well, in your wisdom, consider whether one of
the airfields, with their 9,000ft runways, could be converted into a municipal airport to
rival Norwich?” From killing field to commuter paddock? Farewell fortress; bueno dias
banderiante. Percival kept following his story, trying to find out exactly what the story was.
So how have we been making out with the Cardinal? Was he on about Anne? She and the
great old Duke of Norfolk? Well the Duke did get Cardinal Tom arrested. What a fall,
from such a great height. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men just ignored him in
the end. Even the school here has gone, just the gateway left. And it was going to out-Eton
Eton. He had set up an arrangement with the Duke of Oxford’s widow to get some high
quality stone from the quarries at Caen in France. Very fond of French stone our English
friends. Brought a lot over back in the twelfth century to build the priories between the
river and the beaches around here. Same stuff the Duke of Norfolk used to give a face-lift
to Arundel Castle.
What a lot of dashing dukes. Well only two of them in play at the moment: De Vere from
Lavenham - he’s Duke of Oxford - and Howard from Arundel - he’s Duke of Norfolk.
Confusing? Well their family names were De Vere and Howard. This third Duke of
Norfolk is actually Anne’s uncle and he’s also the uncle of Henry’s fifth wife Katherine
Howard. But let’s not get too much into that right now. Just that Percival loves his facts
He’d hoped we might have met up with Wolsey and heard his views about the dirty old
dukes. We could have asked the cardinal about the tapestries of naked women he used to
have around his own bed, never mind naughty old Norfolk. But we’ve a long way to go
now. And Percival is still reminiscing; listen.
A leg sticking up out of the ground, the footing pointing at you, is a very disturbing thing
to see. No other sign of a person. Just a leg, in some kind of uniform trouser-leg, and a
foot in a black ankle-high shoe. I turned and ran very fast, stumbling and tripping on the
tussocks of coarse grass, slithering through the sand, and feeling the inside of my throat
stretching like dry canvas. I wanted more than anything to hear my mother’s voice calling
out “Percival, tea’s ready.”
It’s the sight of ordinary things not in their usual place that can be more deeply and subtly
disturbing than the blatant intrusion of the monster from outer space. My worst nightmare
at that time was to see the handle of the bedroom door slowly turning, when I knew that
there was nobody out there to turn it. It would be no use shouting out because the only
person who would hear would be the non-person who was turning the handle.
As I ran, I could see the leg and the foot pointing at me. At the same time, I could see the
young soldier I had surprised a few days before - with the bright scarlet stump at the end
of his leg as he sat on the back of a truck and smoked a cigarette. Where was his foot?
Where was the body that owned the leg and the foot I had just walked up to? Was there
any connection? Other than myself?
Percival didn’t want to see these things. He didn’t want to know about them. He just
wanted to hold small rabbits and feel their hearts beating and watch the way they took off
into the bracken when he put them down. The soldiers had burrowed into the heathland.
Miles and miles of trenches and tunnels with the bracken growing over the top so you
couldn’t see they were there until you just about fell into them. Captain Tenby had let him
explore them. Shown him where he’d had his men bury six beach huts into the ground to
act as a command post with trenches fanning out in all directions.
There were many apparently unconnected things happening at the time. Percival’s mother
was learning to ride a bicycle and his father would hold the back of the saddle and run
along beside her telling her everything was all right. Even when a Dornier flew low under
the clouds and fired its machine guns as it raced for the coast. His mother fell into a clump
of stinging nettles and his father kept saying that everything would be all right.
But where was the young soldier’s foot? And who owned the leg and the foot sticking up
out of the marsh? Percival didn’t like to ask too many questions in those days. He wasn’t
a journalist yet.
Sometimes he sat in the back of the ambulance in the late afternoon and learned how to
play chess. When he told the corporal that Captain Tenby had been to visit his parents at
the cottage for tea, the corporal stopped playing chess and told Percival to get out of the
ambulance and that he had better not come back. Then Captain Tenby told him that he
shouldn’t wander about on the heathland anymore because there were unexploded mines
and hand grenades lying around. Part of the training course, he said.
And all the time there was Lavinia wandering around and around Percival, telling him not
to look at her, telling him she knew what boys did with girls, telling him not to watch when
she squatted down among the bracken to urinate. He didn’t really know what she was
talking about. It had that same eerie feeling of watching the door handle turning. Or
finding a foot sticking up out of the marsh.
In the oak forest there was a small cottage with stone walls and a thatched roof and an
overgrown garden and a locked gate and a hole in the fence beside the gate. The windows
had diamond-shaped panes and Percival couldn’t see through them for the dust and
cobwebs. His mother had called it Snow White’s Cottage. He wanted to see inside but she
warned him not to try to get in. The owner was away. That’s all she could tell him.
Percival took his father’s spade and dug a trench at the bottom of the garden. It took him
days and days. His father said he should be doing something useful and showed Percival
how to kill a rabbit by holding it up by its hind legs and hitting it behind the ears with the
edge of your hand or a piece of wood. Then slitting open its stomach with a knife while you
still held its warm body by the hind legs, and watched its intestines tumble out, dangling in
turquoise and purple and acid-blue coils that throbbed out an overpowering smell of hot
His mother made pastry with dark grey wartime flour and they had rabbit pie and
potatoes that his father grew. Rhubarb he loved. But the farmer’s son laughed when
Percival told him they ate turnips and parsnips and said they were only for cattle. The girl
at the farm was older than Percival and she wore a tartan skirt and sat on a box and
squeezed the cow’s fat pink teats and squirted milk into the can that Percival held. He
thought the cows teats looked like naked cocks and he couldn’t believe she could just sit
there in front of him and pull on them like that. He couldn’t look at her. He just used to
mumble thanks and put the money on the shelf and get out of the farmyard before
something incredible happened. He didn’t know what incredible thing. Just her lips smiling
at him and her eyes sending messages that he didn’t understand and her fingers round
that fat pink flesh and he was feeling as though the whole world might just explode to
pieces at any minute.
Sometimes he’d tie ferns around his body and crawl through the bracken behind the
soldiers. When the officers sent spotters to pick out the soldiers who were not well enough
camouflaged he kept very still and they never spotted him. Captain Tenby would let him
ride in the bren gun carrier and handle the bren gun. Most Sunday afternoons Captain
Tenby came to tea at their cottage.
The sky always seemed very low in those days. Streaks of grey clouds running parallel
with the heathland. The North Sea was just over the horizon of bracken. But the coast was
out of bounds. They said they were inventing secret weapons on the coast. Percival couldn’
t imagine what they could be. Anything he thought of didn’t seem secret or important
enough. If they’d told him they were looking at ghosts he wouldn’t have believed them.
There were strange flashes in the night and roaring sounds from out on the island.