Extract

ONE

In the Beginning: On the Hill and a Hurled Pepper Pot

‘I stood upon the hills, when heaven’s wide arch

Was glorious with the sun’s returning march,

And words were brightened, and soft gales

Went forth to kiss the sun glad vales.’

                                               Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

‘Marry when June roses grow, over land and sea you’ll go.’

                                                                                               Anon

‘It’s a girl.’

A thousand alien suns blinded her and her throat, mouth and nose full of the soupy swamp from which she had come, bubbled and sucked desperately.

‘She’s struggling!’

She could taste her mother and her mother’s mother and, at that moment, countless generations locked in her cells cried out. Urging. Encouraging. Insisting.

‘Don’t give up. Never give up.’

From far away, other sounds swirled into her mind. Shouts – the shouts of men in battle, their voices edged with terror and exultation. And cries – desperate cries of those tumbling helplessly into a cold and hungry sea, their last words bubbling soundlessly towards the surface.

‘Don’t give up. Never give up.’

 She raged. Flushed crimson. Fingers and toes curled in frustration and then like a broadside, a tiny voice exploded from her.

‘She’s OK now.’

‘What a performance. Bound for the stage this one,’ smiled the midwife turning towards old Mrs Partridge, there to help, from number sixty nine just down the road.

Later, clean and calm, the newborn baby lay on her back, wondering at the blur of colour around her. A shaft of sunshine slipped through the bedroom window, narrowing her eyes but covering her in a soft, natural warmth, as if her ancestors, rejoicing, were bathing her in a golden light. Inside, she smiled peacefully.

It was the 9th May, 1916; a great sea battle was reverberating off the coast of Jutland, British Summer Time was being introduced and Florrie was born. Like planets and stars, all three fell into a conjunction.

Florrie grew up between two World Wars, on top of the Hill. Below she could see the criss-cross of roads and the regular patchwork of dark red roof tiles that could glow in the sun or be dulled by the rain; and the wilful river undulating through it all and off out of sight, changing like a chameleon in the fickle Medway light. From the edges of the town, broad brush strokes of greens and browns faded into the horizon.

The Hill was long and steep and arduous; climbing it preyed mercilessly on your limbs and lungs and spirit. You could stop and rest but you could never give in, if you wanted to achieve its summit.

Before she was thirty, Florrie had climbed many such Hills. The Hills of Destruction, of Death, of Fear, of Loss and, at long last, of Victory. There were times, when she had trembled with fear and pain and felt she simply wouldn’t make it, but somehow, she always managed to put her dread and suffering to one side and place one leaden step in front of the other.

Climbing the Hill to Victory had been exhausting and demanding and its very name had trembled uncertainly on peoples’ lips. The peak was so often hidden by the black shadows of death and uncertainty and violent storms and desperate avalanches threatened to sweep hope away. Many had fallen.

Florrie, like everyone else, had struggled and faltered along the way, but finally, with fire in her heart, she had rushed the final distance to the top and she could stand there, looking around and taste the sweetest joy. And best of all, a miracle had happened: Ted had joined her, coming home from the War alive and unharmed and she had been overwhelmed with happiness. It had been pure and wondrous – a black and white moment, good over evil, right over wrong, freedom over tyranny and the elation she felt etched itself deeply into her soul forever. This, she knew, would have to be defended and celebrated for the rest of her life.

She was not to know how many more of such Hills were to stretch before her into the hazy distance of her life – maybe that was just as well.

She had four sisters and three brothers, one of whom never survived to see a single candle flickering on a birthday cake and another, a self-employed coal carman died aged fifteen, from a disease that destroyed his young lungs. And so there were five. But such tragedies were common.

Her father, John Henry, traded as a hawker, buying and selling this and that. As a young man, he had waited grim-faced as the bayonets of the Prussian Guard advanced toward him, glinting terribly in the Flanders’ light – Hun steel seeking British gut and he had fought for his life. Later, in that same sodden slaughterhouse, he had choked on poison gas but again, somehow, had found the will to survive as his ancestors whispered urgently.

He carried that experience with him for the rest of his life in more ways than one. Every year in March he would burn with fever, as pieces of German shrapnel forced themselves through his scarred flesh and out, like some awful harvest.

At Christmas, full of whisky, it was nightmares that escaped. In front of his family.

‘Come on Dad, not now.’

 But his words wept. Each stained peace and goodwill. Terrible words that thankfully were soon lost in a slur of alcoholic sadness.

Florrie’s mother, Sarah Jane, always known as Sally, was like a little bird; a tiny, slight, but never fragile jenny wren, hopping from place to place. Maybe it was the malnutrition of Southern Ireland that had stunted her growth, for she had fled with her family from the poverty and hopelessness of County Cork for the poverty and possibilities of the East End of London.

Later, one September, she met her husband-to-be in the green tranquil hop fields of Kent; they had married nearby.

Sarah Jane’s tiny frame never ever increased, as if in a living protest to the sorrow of her homeland, despite frequent visits to the Tam O’ Shanter, just down the Hill, where she sat, enjoying many glasses of black creamy stout. There, solicitors rubbed shoulders with horse dealers, doctors with thieves, landlords with labourers and scrap merchants with magistrates. She knew them all and they, in turn, regularly helped her home – unsteadily back up the Hill.

It was a noisy, chaotic, happy, argumentative household ruled firmly but benignly by John Henry who was determined that his daughters should become ladies and that his remaining son become successful. There was one exception – Florrie. Florrie had decided to be a boy.

A fighting, wrestling, yelling, running, scrumping, black-eyed, grazing-your-knees, getting-into-scrapes sort of boy. A tree-climbing, football-kicking, pipe-smoking, roller-skating, cigarette-card-collecting, conker-smashing, rebellious sort of boy – and she was always in trouble.

‘Florence!’

‘Yes Mother?’

‘Mrs Jenkins has been in.’

‘Oh yes?’

‘Yes! Why did you punch her Samuel on the nose? There was blood all over his new shirt.’

‘It was his fault.’

‘How was it his fault?’

‘He shouldn’t call me Flo. Nobody calls me Flo and gets away with it. I warned him.’

‘Oh Florence.’

And then she met Ted.