‘When I was small,’ Gran began, ’war broke out in Europe and Mr. Churchill – you learned about him in school?’ I nod, so Gran continues, ‘Mr. Churchill gave Germany an ultimatum, which they ignored and so we were went to war too. I mean the country, but also my father – your great-grandfather. My mother said he came home from work one day, not long after Churchill’s announcement on the wireless, and told her he’d signed up. He’d signed up to the army, to join the war effort. I was much too small to know about any of this, but my mother said she was not impressed. She told him he had me and her to care for and he couldn’t go running off like that anymore, playing the hero when we needed him at home. Do you know what he replied, my brave father? He said, ‘Ethel, if men like me don’t unite to fight this menace, then there may be no more home, as we know it, to support. If this Hitler chap has his way, we’ll lose our freedom and anything worth living for. I have to do it – for our future, for Lilian’s future. Don’t you see?’ ‘
‘Of course, I didn’t know any of it at the time, but when Mother told me a few years later, I was so proud of him.’
‘Gran, did he…did he come back?’ I ask. I’m not sure if it’s OK to ask this and it’s not strictly information I need for June, but this is my great-grandfather, for goodness sakes. I want to know!
‘He did! He fought in Europe. He lost friends and comrades, but he came back – back in one piece. Perhaps not the man he was when he left, but I couldn’t remember that man anyway, so I was just pleased he came home again. We’re getting ahead of ourselves, Ellie. Anyway, so it was just Mother and I for a while, but as the War drew on, things got difficult. Hitler and his U-boats cut off supplies from getting into the country, planes were shot down, things were looking grim. My mother decided she should help too, so she signed up to work at the Aircraft Factory that was nearby – we lived near enough for her to cycle there then – but there was one problem.’
‘You?’ I ask.
‘Yes, me. There was a little girl to look after. She felt strongly that she should ‘do her bit’. I think she worried about Father being so far away and that made her feel helpless, so she went to work for the War Effort, to make her feel like she was doing something to help him.’
‘And you went to live with your Aunty Doris at the farm?’ I ask.
‘Yes, I did. Aunty Doris took me in. She had her own children – a boy and twin girls –‘ (Freddy and the Mirror Twins, I think) ‘and me and then she took on an evacuee girl. The little girl was a distant relative, who lived in London with her mother, who’d also gone to work for the War Effort. Aunty Doris knew very little about her, but she needed a home and was part of a group of children who were evacuated to this area, plus her second cousin, or something, contacted her and said she’d feel better if her daughter was among family. You know who I’m talking about, don’t you?’
I nod: June.
‘Oh Ellie, you should have seen her. I remember the day she arrived. Oh, she was the scruffiest, most cross-looking scrap of a girl you ever saw. I remember Aunty Doris’s face when the little girl arrived, all scowls and tangled hair. We all thought perhaps nobody in London took baths, but I daresay she’d had a hard life. My cousins, who had accepted me without question – perhaps because I was so little and didn’t pose a threat to them – took an instant dislike to this interloper, as they saw her.’
‘They were cruel!’ I say, crossly.
‘They were,’ Gran agrees, ‘but they were also put out about how much of their mother’s attention this new girl took up. Oh, if Aunty Doris wasn’t cleaning her and cutting her hair, she was having to keep an extra eye on making sure this one didn’t get into scrapes. Oh, the scrapes that one got into! You have to try and understand that they were jealous and also that this new girl in their midst was very hard to like. She was all corner and hard edges, Ellie. If any child spoke to her, from the farm or the school ,she’d as soon put up her fists as speak back, and when she did speak back – oh the language that one knew!’
‘But you liked her, didn’t you?’
‘I did,’ says Gran. ‘I was in awe of her at first. When I went to Aunty Doris’s, my mother gave me strict instructions on how to behave, what to do to make myself welcome, how to fit in and, small as I was, I obeyed those rules. Yet here was this new girl, flouting every rule and finding new ones to break in her spare time. If she wasn’t overturning pig bins, she was stealing food from the kitchen and getting into fights wherever she went. I was in awe of her at first. I followed her around, fascinated by this girl whose behaviour seemed so alien to me. After a while, I suppose I was so often by her side that she accepted me and started confiding in me. I found out that she was a lonely, anxious little girl, who’d never really had anyone teach her how to behave.’
‘Poor June,’ I say.
‘Yes, poor June.’ She stops talking, rests her chin in her hand and just sits like that for a bit, not really looking at anything. Perhaps she’s looking back and remembering it all clearly, I think. There’s a tear in her eye and I feel uncomfortable about it but I also know there’s an unknown disaster about to unfold and that June has given me a job to do. Reluctantly, I ask Gran,
‘That’s not all, though, is it?’
Gran turns her gaze to me, the spell of the past apparently broken. ‘No, that’s not all, Ellie.’
‘What happened, Gran? I need to know.’
Gran is looking directly at me. Her gaze is so intent I start to shift in my chair, as if I’m feeling guilty of something. Perhaps I am, though I’m not sure of what. ‘Ellie,’ she says, suddenly very serious, ‘I know you do, but before I tell you what happened, I need to know exactly why you need to know. I need to know what you know already and I need to know what you’ve been getting up to in that park.’
Now I know why I feel so guilty. I’ve had seventy years of sneaking around and calling it, ‘the park’,and Gran is onto me, although I really don’t think any of this is entirely my fault. I’m not sure where to begin, so I say, ‘Gran, my…’turns’, they’re not…they’re not just turns,’ and then I take a chance and add, ‘Are they?’
‘No-oh,’ says Gran, a little uncomfortably, I think.
‘I’ve been…I’ve been…’ I am so used to hiding my strange behaviour that even now, with the one adult who may actually understand and believe me, I feel reluctant to go on. I feel I need proof that she really will understand. I look at her, expectantly.
‘Ellie, I think I know and I think you know I know what’s been going on with you. Tell me the truth – the truth, mind – and I promise I will believe you: every word.’
So I do, and the relief is immense. It’s as if I’ve been carrying around a huge weight and now I can take it off and hand it to someone who can deal with it for me. Everything comes pouring out: about my time travelling episodes, about going back and forth between the War, the Farm and the park and now. I tell her about June, the barn, the hen house, the Others. I tell her about how it feels to travel through time, about the grinding noises and the sensation of falling off the earth. I tell her about Lilian possibly seeing the same moment over and over, perhaps from slightly different viewpoints and then I ask her the questions I’ve been holding inside, ‘Are you one, Gran? Are you a time traveller and are you Lilian?’
‘I am Lilian,’ says Gran. ‘As to whether I am a time traveller, I think perhaps I am – or was – but that I never got very good at it. I never travelled through years like you’ve been doing or like June did-‘
‘Does,’ I correct her. ‘She’s still doing it. June is still stuck between now and then, Gran.’
Gran looks at me, disbelievingly, I think. ‘Is she, Ellie? Is she really?’ She looks almost hopeful now.
‘Yes! Yes she is! That little girl you saw me with at the park?’
Gran makes that fluttering movement at her throat again and the grips the arms of her chair.
‘Is she, Ellie? Is she really? Is she still there?’
‘She is, Gran, she is! I’ve seen her with my own eyes. I’ve talked to her, I’ve sat and listened to her. I even had bread and dripping with her! Gran, it’s what this is all about!’
And then Gran does something quite unexpected: she bursts into tears. My gran sits there and sobs big, noisy tears and I have no idea what to do about it. ‘Gran? Gran?’ I ask her.
‘Oh, Ellie,’ she says through sobs that make my poor Gran shake. ‘Oh Ellie, all these years, I thought…I thought…I thought she’d died, Ellie! I thought she’d died and it was partly my fault. I thought she died in the – we all did! All these years of not knowing, all these years of a terrible fear that I could have, should have done something to stop it all. I just kept telling myself I was very young at the time, that none of us could have seen or known what she’d do, but, Ellie, I was the only one who could have understood it. At least, I was the only one who could have tried!’
‘Died in the what, Gran? How did you think she died?’
Gran is silent for a moment, but for the sobbing, which is now much quieter and more subdued. I feel like the most insensitive person on the planet, but I really do need to know, because if June is about to die, I really do need to do something to stop her, and I haven’t the faintest idea what. I don’t know what to do! Then I remember June’s words to me: Get your Gran, Ellie! I can’t get her to help us now, though, not when she’s a sad and possibly broken old lady. I need old Gran back: Gran who steps in and fixes your problems. That’s when I realise: I need to step in and fix Gran’s problems. I’m not yet eleven years old and I’ve been a mess my whole life, but now I need to step up, be strong and be the one who fixes things for others. I’m not sure how I feel about this, so I decide not to feel anything about it at all. I decide to just get on with it.