Authors: Trilby Kent
ALMA BOOK LTD
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First published by Alma Books Limited in 2013
Copyright © Trilby Kent, 2013
Trilby Kent asserts her moral right to be identified as the author of this work in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
Printed in Great Britain by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon CR0 4YY
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Every moment grows, like a plant with tangled, hidden roots, out of the soil of the past, and is invisibly shaped by it. What these children had suffered,
uncomprehendingly, reached back further than their memories, back into the time before they existed and before their lives began.
And even that was not the beginning.
On the island one was driven back into the past. There was so much space, so much silence, so few meetings that one too easily saw out of the present, and then the
past seemed ten times closer than it was.
By the time the car arrived to deposit him, fourteen boys and a housemaster were already gathered at the makeshift terminus in Grimsby, the old building having been destroyed
in the winter floods. The others cast dark looks at the newcomer, the one responsible for the fact that they’d had to sit in the draughty waiting room for two hours, dripping in their
school-issue sou’westers, watching ferry after ferry disappear into the fog towards Lindsey Island.
Ten minutes into the journey, one of them detached himself from a knot of boys to ask Barney what year he was in. Over the engine’s tinny drone, Barney told him.
“You’re a bit big for the Second,” said the boy.
“I’m fourteen,” said Barney. And then, because his interrogator was not going to say anything, he added, “I’ve been out of school for a while.”
“Huh,” said the boy, and wandered off across the open deck to rejoin his friends.
There was a big empty space below deck with wooden benches and misted-up portholes and rubber matting underfoot. Some of the boys hunkered down here, perching on their school trunks in groups of
two or three, playing card games and swapping stories from their holidays over bottles of lemonade. The older ones paced about on deck in brooding pairs, collars turned up against the wind.
At one point the housemaster, Mr Runcie, sat down next to Barney on the creaking bench.
“Sir – dreadful business about Cray,” ventured one of the card-players. “My old man says it sounds like the Russians, not an accident at all, sir.”
“A very sad thing,” said Mr Runcie. “Whatever the cause.”
The card-player resumed his hand.
“First time away from home?” said Mr Runcie, turning to Barney.
“You’ll get the hang of it in no time. You’ve done the Eleven Plus?”
No, he hadn’t passed. The woman whose job it was to comment on such things said it must have been down to distractions at home. Home was Camden Town. It was all right. His dad – for
some reason, Barney corrected himself here – his
wasn’t working at the moment, but he had a folk group that sometimes played in local pubs. Folk as in ballads, not
When they had exhausted the conversation, Mr Runcie told Barney that he’d have to excuse himself to check up on the lads on deck. “Wouldn’t want anyone disappearing overboard
on my watch, hey now, Holland?”
Barney tried to ignore the looks from the cabal of boys clustered nearby.
Hey now, Holland?
” sniggered one, which set off an echoing murmur from the others.
Barney let their voices disappear beneath the throb of the engine while he drew patterns in the condensation on one of the portholes. With the tip of his finger he traced a tall ship, squinting
at the distant horizon so that it would look as if the vessel was floating on the real sea outside. Then, using the corner of one nail, he filled in a series of tiny figures. When the picture was
complete, he watched the ship of fools bob up and down on the green waves until fresh condensation started to collect on the inside of the glass.
As the vessel and its crew disappeared into the fog, he used his fist to obliterate the ship and everyone on board.
Barney didn’t know much about Lindsey Island beyond what one of his dad’s friends had told him when they’d found out he’d been offered a last-minute
place at the Carding House School.
“We ditched them in the war,” he’d grinned, between swigs of bitter. “Two weeks later, in come the Jerries, and they don’t leave until ’45. Right bastards
they were, too.”
It didn’t reflect well on the mother country, ditching the islanders like that, Barney’s dad had observed. By his tone it was clear that this was just another way for Spike to say
what he’d always maintained about Sheila and what he’d taken to calling “her grand adventure”. The note left on the kitchen table had said she’d send for Barney and
his little brother, Jake, once she had found a place to live. There had been just one letter after that, with a long bit about the ship that was taking her back to Cape Town and the swimming pool
on board where people who hadn’t previously crossed the Equator were ceremonially dunked. It all sounded terribly raucous, and the boys had asked when they’d be allowed to join her. But
the letter hadn’t said anything about that, so Spike had told them that they’d just have to wait and see.
They’d been waiting the night one of the neighbours rang the health visitor because Jake was screaming with earache and a temperature and Barney hadn’t known what to do. The next
day, Spike came home to find a woman in flat shoes and cloudy spectacles standing outside the flat with the news that Barney was meant to be in school and his brother needed a doctor. Either they
would both be taken into care, or Jake could stay under supervision if Barney could be found a residential place. That same evening, she called back with what she called “good news”: a
spot had come up at a state boarding school on Lindsey Island – some distance, yes, but it was still England and the fresh air would do him good. Anticipating their ignorance, she had brought
an atlas with her so that Barney could see exactly where it was. In fact, Lindsey Island didn’t even fit onto the main map of Britain. Instead, it featured along with several other crown
dependencies in boxes around the edge of the page: magnified beyond justification, plucked from their natural coordinates and lined up together like a drifting army of geological misfits. Lindsey
Island appeared dislocated and empty; its neighbour, St Just, hadn’t even featured beyond a black speck, like a seal’s head poking out of the water.
None of this had bothered Spike, who said his boy deserved to go to a proper school, not a foundling home, because Barney wasn’t a foundling and was old enough to know the difference too.
It was decided before anyone asked Barney what he thought. And it was all Mum’s fault.
Barney knew that if it hadn’t been for the war Mum would have gone home to South Africa sooner, to a house in a sunny suburb by the beach. Then he wouldn’t have had to be sent to a
cold, grey island that was and wasn’t England, and he wouldn’t be just another weight tied to the wings of a beautiful bird: a dull man-child incapable of imagining a better life or
understanding the one she had fashioned out of dreams and half-remembered memory.
It was too dark to see more than the shadow of a cliff overlooking the harbour as they clattered along the gangplank to the sound of water slapping against the sea wall.
Glancing over one shoulder as the ferry lights switched off with an electric jolt, Barney was struck by the murky shine of the water and the blackness of the sky, which was dull with cloud. On the
coach, the boys slumped into fuzzy, nicotine-scented seats, the youngest ones letting their heads loll against the rattling windows. Once they had left the town, a new kind of darkness opened up
before them – the headlights slicing a trail down the flat, hedged road, illuminating a pile of grey fur on the verge, or clusters of straw droppings imprinted with hoofmarks.
Finally, they turned into a driveway. Some minutes later, the coach braked at a house. Before it was a gravelled square and a fountain filled with green water.
While the others silently unloaded the luggage, Barney wandered towards the fountain and stood, hands in pockets, to consider the statue at its centre: a man and horse emerging from the
motionless slime. The animal’s outstretched neck and rolling eyes made it look as though it might unseat the naked rider, who grasped his mount’s mane while pointing with the other hand
at the rising moon.
How did the song go? Barney chewed at a bit of skin that had begun to peel beneath his fingernail, squinting even though there was hardly any light.
There is a fountain filled with blood
There is a fountain filled with blood
There is a fountain filled with blood
Flows from Emmanuel’s veins!
He trailed a finger through the water before noticing that a lamp had switched on in one of the dormer windows: someone must have been woken by bars of light gliding along the
wall. He froze. Did a hand clutch the lifted fabric? The harder he looked, the more convinced he became that someone was there, watching the boys emerging from their bus. A moment later, the
curtain floated back into place, and the light switched off.
The school matron had appeared from the main building. With Mr Runcie, she led the boys across the square and into Medlar House. It was
past ten, so the latest arrivals were given Ovaltine and digestive biscuits instead of supper. As they were emptying their mugs, a lad Barney’s age wandered downstairs in a flannel dressing
gown. The boy was pale and square-headed and moved as though a string was pulling him up by the collarbone. Mr Runcie introduced him to Barney as Robin Littlejohn. Barney felt himself being coolly
registered by a pair of blue eyes set deep and slightly too close together.
“Holland’s in your set, so I’ll ask you to show him the ropes and make sure he goes to meet the Head tomorrow, straight after breakfast,” said Mr Runcie.
The last of the luggage was brought in, and the housemaster secured the front door. Giving the heavy iron latch a final, fond pat, he winked at the new boy as if they were already complicit in a
Upstairs in the dormitory, a boy introduced as Hiram Opie flung both arms around Barney’s shoulders, squeezing tightly. “My favourite animal is the
pteranodon,” he announced, before releasing Barney and turning to Robin with a triumphant expression. Hiram was the only boy with his nightshirt buttoned to the top; his socks had been
stretched to cover bony knees. “It’s rice pudding tomorrow,” he said. “Rice pudding, pice rudding, mice running, cunning cunning mice…”
“Opie’s simple,” said Robin as the other boy wandered back to his corner. “He only learnt to tie his shoes this summer. But he’s too old for primary school and too
clever to go in a home, so his parents put him on the List.” He eyed Barney, taking in the tattered jumper, baggy shorts and mismatched shoelaces. “You too?”
“He doesn’t sound simple. What’s a pteranodon?”
“Some kind of dinosaur, I expect.”
No one had mentioned assigned beds, so Barney took the one next to Robin. He would have preferred a corner spot, where there was more privacy, but Robin seemed to expect him to stay where he