WELCOME to our regular feature showcasing the talents of the nation’s best writers. This week, Cathy McSporran gives us a preview of her new novel, The Few
The English Channel, May 1940
‘Mags, I don’t feel very well.’
‘Ssh. He’ll hear you!’
If there was one thing Maggie and her brother agreed on these days, it was that they weren’t about to let their father out of sight. They hadn’t heard from her in months – busy with important war work, or so her last letter said – so now they followed their father whenever they could get away with it. In the shops, or outside the pub, or winding cables on the boat, Dad would look up and find his double shadow staring back at him with mute defiance. They weren’t going anywhere, not unless he went too.
He always told them: they were all right, they were quite safe, nothing was going to happen. Maggie always smiled back, but wondered how he could have misunderstood so badly. It was he who looked at risk, he who looked like he couldn’t take care of himself. ‘He doesn’t even know how many sugars he takes in his tea,’ Maggie said to Colin, who understood perfectly. So they agreed: they would keep on following him.
So their father shouldn’t have been surprised by what happened. But he was – he didn’t think of it till after, when it was much too late.
The three were eating breakfast when the call came over the wireless. Gran was away seeing her sister; Dad had made breakfast so that Maggie could finish her homework. They were doing their best with the burnt toast and rock-hard boiled eggs when Dad suddenly jumped to his feet and turned up the wireless.
A beach in France – Dunkirk. Our boys. Trapped on the shore.
Waiting for boats. Our boats.
Maggie sat very still, as if that would make her father sit safely back down and stay there. But he drained his teacup, picked up the last of his toast and said, ‘You two can do the washing-up.’
‘You’re not going?’ said Maggie.
‘You heard.’ He was shrugging on his jumper. ‘It’s just across the Channel.’
‘But you don’t believe in fighting,’ said Colin.
‘This isn’t fighting. It’s rescuing people.’ He finished lacing up his boots, and turned to smile at his children. ‘I’ll be back tonight. Maybe tomorrow. Tell your Gran.’ He patted his son’s shoulder and said, ‘Look after your sister and your Gran till I get back.’ Then he hugged his daughter and said, quietly but with rather more conviction, ‘Look after them.’
Then he snapped off the wireless, and was gone.
Maggie and Colin stared at the remains of the breakfast table. Colin turned to his sister, his eyes huge and worried behind his glasses. ‘Do you think we should…’
Maggie was looking at her fifteen-minute egg and her charcoaled toast. ‘He can’t even boil an egg,’ she said.
This decided them. They jumped up and followed their father.
From the front gate of the cottage, they looked down and saw the crowd gathering at the harbour. Beyond the harbour were the golden beaches, the pier and the big, white hotel: all deserted. It seemed everyone was at the harbour. The boats were alive with figures; the wharf was crowded with bystanders, mostly women with bright headscarves. Seagulls wheeled and screamed around the boats, but they would be disappointed; no fishing today.
Clutching their school satchels for cover, Maggie and Colin trotted down the path, their gas-masks bumping against their hips. The sea was flat and sparkling; to the East, France was a peaceful morning haze. ‘Should be a calm enough trip,’ Maggie said.
Colin nodded thankfully. They passed the church, Saint Michael’s, the great square-towered Norman monstrosity that was far too big for the little village of Wardston. Then they were mingling with the crowd on the wharf. Maggie took Colin’s hand and began to thread her way – slowly, casually – towards their father’s boat.
They had the Susan in sight when a large heavy hand descended on Colin’s shoulder. They looked up into a large heavy face under a blue domed helmet; the face said, ‘Now then, young man. Not thinking of playing the hero, are we? Tagging along with your Dad?’
Colin stared open-mouthed at the policeman, a picture of guilt. Before he could say anything, Maggie put on her most sugary voice and said, ‘It’s all right, Constable Carter. I’ll see he gets to school safe and sound. Boys are so silly, they just can’t be trusted on their own!’
For a moment she thought she’d overdone it; but Carter’s face had already softened. ‘That’s a good girl. You keep an eye on him.’ He turned to Colin. ‘You look after your sister and your grandma, now, you hear? You’re the man of the house till your Dad gets back.’
Colin, who was ten years old and small as an eight-year-old, nodded solemnly. Maggie, nearly seventeen and as solidly built as her father, giggled and looked demurely at her feet. ‘Come on, you big silly,’ she said to Colin, and towed him away from the policeman, up Harbour Street towards the school.
After a hundred yards, Colin said, ‘Are we really going to school?’
‘Don’t be daft.’ Still clutching his hand, Maggie pulled him into Harbour Alley, back towards their father’s boat.
That had been hours ago, and they’d spent most of that time crouching in the large galley cupboard. The cramp was bad enough. But now things were getting worse: either the weather had turned or they’d reached rougher water, because great humps of waves were lifting and dropping the Susan like a cork. And Colin, who could get poorly on a millpond, was starting to whimper: ‘Maggie, I really don’t feel well.’
‘I think I’m going to be sick…’ And then he was, splashing Maggie’s ankles and filling the cupboard with stink. Maggie said a word her grandmother would have smacked her for, and pushed open the cupboard door.
She scrambled out into the cleaner air and the comparative brightness of the galley. Colin tumbled after her, mumbling apologies. Maggie was on her feet first, and her eyes cleared; and what she saw made her fall back, bumping against her brother.
Their father loomed in the hatchway; his face was terrible. ‘What the hell are you two doing here?’
Colin pointed at his sister: ‘She said you couldn’t boil an egg.’
Maggie kicked him, but her father’s gaze was already turning. ‘It wasn’t just me,’ she cried, ‘It wasn’t just me!’
Before her dad could answer, there was a booming sound from above, like a big wave hitting the sand; the Susan rocked crazily, nearly throwing them off their feet. Dad snapped, ‘Stay below,’ and disappeared.
The two of them looked at each other in the dim, sick-scented galley. Eventually Maggie shrugged: how much more trouble could they get into? ‘Might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb,’ she said, and followed her father. Colin was right behind her as she emerged onto the deck, out into the bright sunshine and a rolling cloud of smoke, and they saw what they had come to.
Dunkirk was burning.
Three huge cones of smoke towered over the beach like black tornadoes. Dull orange fire flickered at the bottom. Burning chemicals caught the backs of their throats – there was a mucky brown haze over the choppy sea and the dun-coloured sand. Maggie and Colin had seen the French coast before, on trips with Dad; they had watched the waves swishing across the bay, fanning out calmly onto the sand. But now the sea pitched and struggled under them, stirred up by boats. Dozens of them, large and small: from wooden rowing-boats to a great, shining steel destroyer, about a mile off, where the sun was breaking through.
Maggie glanced to starboard and almost screamed: there was a wall of iron a hundred yards off, too close. Another destroyer. Maggie and Colin looked up the metal wall, and saw an arm waving from amidst the gun-muzzles peeking over the side. Dad was waving back.
One of ours. Relieved, Maggie turned back to the beach, now only two hundred yards or so off. There were long lines of fence posts there, hundreds of them, forming straggling lines across the sand, each topped with a dull metallic sheen. Some of them stood in the sea, half-submerged, as if caught by the tide. They must be some kind of defence line, she thought, until she saw they were moving, each post shifting, making the line wriggle like a snake. They weren’t fence-posts at all; they were men. Soldiers, standing in long, ragged lines across the beach.
Colin appeared at Maggie’s elbow. ‘What are they doing?’
‘I think they’re… queuing.’
Colin blinked. ‘Like in the post office?’
Maggie couldn’t help giggling; it was all so polite. ‘They’re just… waiting their turn—’
There was a droning sound overhead, nasal and unpleasant. The lines of men flattened themselves onto the sand. Something like a metal kite flashed overhead; Maggie and Colin looked up at steel wings marked with Luftwaffe black crosses. The fighter skimmed over them towards the shore. There was a rattle of popping sounds like fireworks, and little bursts of sand hurried up the beach in a zig-zagging line. The soldiers were moving, breaking out of their orderly queue, but they weren’t quick enough. The zig-zag crossed the line of men, there was a haze of red, and some of the soldiers began to scream.
Colossal booming shook the boat: the destroyer’s guns were firing. The German plane began to haemorrhage smoke, twisting and turning in the air. The men on the shore scattered, some up the beach and some down to the water, as the fighter struggled but kept its trajectory downwards, and then exploded on the beach in a cloud of smoke and sand and fire.
The men who’d fled down the beach were in the water now, pushing away from the flames and out to sea, as if they meant to wade to Dover. Some of them were up to their chests, and didn’t seem to be stopping. They’d rather drown than burn, Maggie thought. She turned to her father, who was at the wheel, to point out the wading men; only then did she notice the change in the engine sound. Dad was turning the Susan around, away from the shore. ‘Dad,’ called Maggie, ‘what are you doing?’
‘Taking you two home.’ He had to shout over the shots, the cannon fire, the roaring of the fires. ‘What d’you think I’m doing?’
Maggie looked back at the men in the water. They had noticed her, in spite of all the noise. It was the last thing they expected to hear, a girl’s voice; the last thing they thought they’d see, a girl’s bright red plaited hair, shining even in the grubby cloud of smoke. They were pushing towards the Susan now, shrugging off their packs; they were stretching out their arms to Maggie. ‘Dad, they’re just there,’ she cried.
He wasn’t looking, deliberately not looking. ‘I’m getting the two of you home.’
‘We can’t just leave them!’
‘I told you to get below!’
The men were much closer now; Maggie could see their faces. ‘No.’ She hoisted herself up, threw one leg over the side. ‘Dad, I’m getting them! I mean it!’
She didn’t really mean it, of course; not really. But Colin started to wail, ‘Don’t, don’t!’ and Dad held out a hand to placate her.
‘All right! Just get back down! And get below!’
Maggie obediently flattened herself to the deck. Her father left the wheel and reached overboard with both arms, tipping the Susan to starboard. He came up pulling something like a huge brown fish, dumped the gasping man onto the deck and reached over for another.
The boat tipped again, so low that a hand grabbed onto the side right above Maggie’s head. She jumped up and held out her arms. A man’s face, wide-eyed and staring like a frightened horse, looked back at her; hands grabbed onto her and she pulled, painfully, until the man rolled over the side and onto the deck. He lay there, panting and staring at her. Maggie heard Dad’s voice shouting, ‘Help the others!’ The first man he’d pulled aboard was getting up, reaching over. Colin was only a few feet away, trying to pull an enormous man on board but being pulled closer and closer to the water himself. Maggie said to the man at her feet, ‘Help the others,’ and as he scrambled to his feet she lunged for Colin, grabbing the big soldier’s arms just before they both fell backwards into the sea.
And then there were more and more of them, crowding onto the deck in their sopping-wet khakis, their eyes frantic and empty of thought. They piled into the galley, in a row on the bunk. They filled every inch: the Susan was riding so low in the surf that Maggie could reach overboard and put her hand right into the water. And still there were more.
‘That’s enough,’ Dad said at last. He was looking at a man with a moustache, a man with extra patches on his shoulders. ‘We’ll capsize.’
The man nodded, and roared, ‘That’s it. You men in the water – off with you! Wait for the next boat!’
It was an upper-class accent, the voice of command; but even that wasn’t enough. The gripping hands kept coming. The men who were safely in the boat shoved them off, unwrapping their clutching fingers or just hammering them with their fists. Still the reaching hands; now there were pleading voices, calling things Maggie couldn’t hear and didn’t want to. It wasn’t until the officer shouted, ‘Shoot the next man who tries to board!’ that the clutching hands finally disappeared.
Wallowing impossibly low, the Susan heaved itself around and started pushing away from the beach. Maggie kept still, wedged against the port side by soaking, uniformed figures. Colin was over to starboard, tiny among the hulking men; Maggie smiled at him reassuringly, starting to feel reassured herself. The coast of Dunkirk fell away, five hundred, six hundred yards. A thousand.
The men’s panting breath was slowing now; their faces relaxing, dull with exhaustion but human again. Quite a few faces were looking at Maggie and Colin. The officer – a major, Maggie saw, with a little embroidered crown on his shoulder – said, ‘What the bloody hell are these children doing aboard?’
‘Stowaways.’ Dad glared at Maggie, who looked at her feet. ‘Hid down below.’
‘We just wanted to help,’ Colin said. Some of the men laughed; one of them patted his shoulder. Dad ignored them, ‘They’re going right back to Dover.’
The major shook his head, ‘Put them onto the Grafton with us.’ He pointed at the destroyer. ‘Then go back to the beach.’
‘When I get my children home safe.’
‘They’ll be safe enough on the Grafton, man!’
Dad jerked his head towards the other destroyer, the one a mile off. Flames were blossoming from its hull. Things were falling into the sea, burning things. ‘Dover,’ Dad said.
‘Dammit, man, this is an order!’
‘I’m not in the army, mister.’
The major looked at the other men, who were looking away. Obviously Dover sounded good to them, but they weren’t about to argue with an officer. Eventually the major said to Dad, ‘Now look here. You’ve got one last chance before I commandeer this boat.’
‘Do you know how to pilot it?’
‘For God’s sake, how hard can that be?’
‘She lists to port,’ said Dad, lying smoothly about his perfectly-maintained craft. ‘Do you know how to compensate for that? Where to thump the motor if it goes belly-up?’
‘You’ve – got one last—’
‘Dover first.’ Dad turned to look at the major. ‘Drop off my kids. Then I’ll go to and from your ship as often as you want.’
At that point the Susan sailed clear of the smoke, into the sunshine. They were nearly past the Grafton, looking into clean blue sky. There was the faint drone of a plane, somewhere far above, but no-one noticed because they could see the line of white on the other shore. The white cliffs.
The men cheered, and the major gave up. ‘Very well. Dover—’
The cheering stopped and the drone became a roar, and iron wings painted with German black crosses flashed overhead. Something dropped about twenty yards off, and the Susan heaved to starboard as the sea erupted. Maggie saw Colin thrown sideways, saw his head smack against the side, saw the man beside him pull him upright. She was drenched in cold water as a wave broke over the starboard bow, but she was too wedged in place to move or to fall. She saw three men around her father clouded in a reddish haze; they, and her dad, who had been standing precariously balanced as he talked to the major, were thrown to starboard and over the side.
The Susan righted itself as the bomber skimmed upwards and away, trying to shake off a British plane marked with RAF roundels – a Spitfire – that had swooped up behind it. Maggie shoved through the men around her to where Dad had gone overboard. She was ready to tease him – his boots flying up in the air like that, it looked so funny! She couldn’t see him, though. He must have been too scared of the bomber to surface. ‘It’s all right,’ she called. ‘It’s gone.’
Behind her she heard the major: ‘Any sign of them?’ She didn’t hear the answers, though, she just reached down and splashed at the choppy water. What was he playing at? ‘Dad! Come on!’
She was reaching for an upside-down metal helmet, which was bobbling along like a toy boat – Dad might be underneath it, trying to come up! – when the wailing sound began. A falling, screaming sound. The men beside her craned their necks up to the sky, like rabbits who’ve heard an eagle. Their eyes were wide again. A word went around them: ‘Stuka.’ It jumped from one man to the next – ‘Stuka. Stuka.’
The major’s shout cut them off as the dreadful wailing cry became louder. ‘Get this thing moving! You there! The engine!’
Maggie was still scanning the water; she felt the tone of the engine change. ‘No!’ she cried, ‘no, I haven’t found him yet!’
No one seemed to hear. The major’s voice barked again, ‘Full speed! Steer for the ship!’
‘No! Don’t! My Dad—’
‘Get us moving!’
The Grafton’s guns boomed again, but the scream of the siren got louder and louder. Maggie was still splashing at the water’s surface, trying to swoosh a big piece of debris out of the way, when she heard someone cry out, a child’s cry. She looked up for Colin, but it was one of the men beside her. She smelled urine. Now there were heavy splashing sounds; some of the men were throwing themselves into the sea, trying to swim away in their heavy uniforms. The man who’d cried out was standing up, pointing: ‘Oh God help us!’
Maggie looked up. A plane was falling towards them. The fall was controlled: a dive-bomber. It was screaming as though it were being tortured, and it was pointed right at the Susan. It was small, with funny, fat little ankles, like a toy. But the men on the boat were scattering before it like swimmers from a shark. Its nose was grey like a shark’s – it even had painted teeth around its nose. It was looking at her, grinning.
Maggie stood up. It was headed right at them; it was headed for the patch of water where her father had fallen. Where he was still waiting, obviously, still submerged – but he didn’t know about the plane! Maggie stared at the Stuka, and gathered all her strength. Electricity crackled around her hair as it unwound from its thick plaits. Oblivious, Maggie focussed on the plane and screamed, ‘Go away!’, thrusting out both hands to ward it off.
The Stuka flipped over backwards, nose to tail, as if a gale-force wind had caught it. It scattered its little bombs, but they fell into empty water, and the fountains that roared up were harmless. The plane itself kept flipping, over and over, until it hit the sea in a massive burst of water, its wing scything into a packed rowing boat. There were more screams now.
‘Mother of God,’ the major said. He wasn’t looking at the remains of the dinghy – he was staring at Maggie. She ignored him, and the screams, and turned back to the empty sea around the Susan. ‘Dad! Dad!’
‘Freya,’ a voice beside her said. ‘Freya. Sie kommt.’
It was Colin. He was beside her, staring at nothing. The side of his head was bloody. One of the lenses of his glasses was broken; his eye was cracked from side to side, staring into empty space. ‘Freya,’ he said. ‘Die schöne göttin. Freya.’
He was alive and in the boat; Maggie had already stopped listening to him, was looking all around. Maybe Dad had headed back to the beach? He would, surely he would? ‘Dad! Dad!’
The engine was starting. The boat was moving away. ‘No.’ She turned to the man beside her, ‘Wait!’
The man gazed back; it was the pity in his eyes that broke her. ‘I’m sorry, lass,’ he said.
‘No! Dad! Dad!’
‘I’m sorry,’ the man said. He pulled her into his arms. ‘There, lass, I’m sorry.’
She started screaming into his shoulder, as the Susan turned and made for Dover.
• Cathy McSporran’s debut novel Cold City was published in 2014. The Few is out now, published by Freight, £8.99