Back in Time for Tea

Chapter 8

‘Gran,’ I say, with what I hope sounds like a brave and determined voice. ‘Gran, you have to help me. You have to help me save June.’ Gran looks at me, startled for a moment, as if she forgot I was there. Perhaps she was, in her own way, back in the past for a moment – back with June.

Gran produces a tissue from the sleeve of her cardigan and wipes her eyes, then blows her nose.

‘You know, Ellie, it is fair to say that I have waited over seventy years for this. I remember you coming to the farm in the War. I remember when you stopped coming and, all my life since, I’ve wondered who this strange child with, with her tales of, ‘my time,’ and the strange goings on there. Of course, when you were born and your mother named you, I wondered. I wondered if you were the one. As you grew older, I’d study your face and character for signs of that other Ellie, but it’s hard to match your grand-daughter with a memory from sixty or seventy years ago. Sometimes I’d think you reminded me of her, but then I’d find your likeness in old family photos and think perhaps you had the ‘family look’ about you. Then when you started having your ‘turns’, I became suspicious. Some of the things your mother described to me were familiar to me.’

‘Because you travelled, too? I ask.

‘Yes. I knew what it felt like. I wondered if perhaps it was an inherited trait. You know – some families inherit huge ears or fabulous cheekbones, while perhaps we inherit a predisposition to falling through time. There were others, you know.’

I raise my eyebrows in surprise. Why does nobody ever tell you this, I wonder? Surely it would be useful to know that you might one day fall over and land in the past – or future. ‘Who?’ I ask.

‘Well, nobody knows for sure, but there were stories about my grandmother. She disappeared, you know, when my mother was young – never seen again. Oh, there were stories and explanations: drowning, run off with a fancy man – that sort of thing – but there were other stories too and what with me, June and then you…I started wondering, you know?’

‘Is that why you brought me here?’ I ask. ‘To study me, or to see if I could save June?’

‘What?’ asks Gran, offended. ‘No! I brought you here because I love you and I was worried about you!’

‘Because of the time travelling?’

‘Because of the possibility that you might be, yes. Ellie, this isn’t an easy thing to talk about, unless you’re with another traveller. Nobody – absolutely nobody else understands. It’s not…’

‘Normal,’ I finish her sentence for her.

‘Well, quite. But here you are, my abnormal girl, and it seems we have a problem to solve. What can we do about it, do you think?’

‘Gran, I need you to come back with me. I need you to talk to June and talk her out of whatever it was that nearly killed her. It was something she did, wasn’t it? You know what she’s like! She’ll listen to you, Gran!’

Gran leans back in her chair and sighs. ‘Oh, Ellie, I can’t do that.’

‘Why?’ I ask ‘You could do it then – you can do it again now! You know where stuff is on the farm, you know what she did. I need you, Gran!’

‘Ellie, I stopped time travelling the day June disappeared and we all thought…we all thought that she’d died. I couldn’t do it again, or I would have done it before now. Besides which, how would I explain my presence to little Lillian? I’m not sure what the rules of time travel are, but I’m not sure you can go barging in on your own self. We need to think of another way.’

I had been pinning all my hopes on Gran coming back and sorting it all out for me, that I hadn’t thought beyond this plan. I slump in my chair, thinking that the whole thing is doomed, that I wish I’d never travelled back in time in the first place. Then at least I wouldn’t know there even was a problem! I’m cross with Gran, who sort of got me into this, I think, and I’m cross with June, for being stupid enough to do whatever it was she did to catapault herself through time for over half a century. That reminds me: June! It’s no good being cross with her, I think. I do know about her and I do need to save her, although I’m still not clear on what it is I’m saving her from.

‘Then I need to know everything, Gran. I need to know what happened on that day and on the day after and why you all thought she’d died. If I can get myself back to exactly the moment before she did whatever she did, maybe I can stop her, yeah?’

Gran nods. ‘I’ll tell you what I know, Ellie, but I warn you, it isn’t much and it may not be enough. Maybe it will help, though. Maybe we can work out the rest.’

I grit my teeth, hoping we have enough time left to solve the puzzle of June’s disappearance, before it’s too late and she’s gone for good. ‘Tell me what you know,’ I say.

‘June was always hiding out in that barn,’ says Gran. ‘She was either shirking her jobs around the farm, or avoiding Freddy, Beryl and Ida – the twins – or maybe a combination of both. Of course, the children soon found her out and would go and taunt her out of her hiding place. Freddy was all for dragging her out, at least to listen to him you’d think he was, but you know I think he was a little afraid of her. She was like a wild cat, that girl, and could she put up a fight? Oh, if she felt like it, that one could box your ears, scratch your face and knock you over into the dirt. She got into fights at school, mostly with the other evacuee children. Only once did she box Freddy and Aunty Doris gave her such a telling off for it that she never tried again. For his part, though, Freddy remembered the pain and the shame of being beaten by a girl younger and smaller than him and he was wary. Beryl and Ida fought with words, mostly. She never went for them. To be honest with you, I think she scorned them and they knew it and didn’t like it. I suppose nobody wanted to play second fiddle to this interloper, as they saw her and, in their different ways, they all wanted to get even with June.

‘That one day, though, Freddy and the girls came into the barn. I remember it very clearly, because I was in there too – or just outside, or very nearby, or-‘

‘The day you saw the same thing lots of times?’ I ask.

‘Yes, it must have been that, because I can remember it from different angles. The oddest thing, though, is that it was different each time. It wasn’t hugely different – there was always June in the barn, the children coming in and taunting her, an argument…but sometimes it ended in a fight and sometimes it ended before then. I can’t explain that, except maybe the times you were there, or I was in the barn, it played out differently. What do you think?’

‘I don’t know,’ I say. ‘Yeah, maybe.’ Hope begins to fill me then, because I think that maybe we did influence things a little, Lillian and I. If we did it then, maybe we can do it again. I put this idea to Gran, who is enthusiastic.

‘Yes, maybe we can, Ellie. Good thinking! Where was I? The barn, yes. So this one day, Aunty Doris was going frantic over June disappearing, because she’d switched her jobs from egg collecting to taking the tea out to the farm workers in the field. This had been going about as well as anything could where June was involved and yet today she was nowhere to be seen and the tea was ready, stewing and in danger of going cold. I remember I said I’d go and get her – I was too small to manage to tea things myself, but I knew where she was and going to get her would be a welcome relief from Aunty Doris grumbling and crashing around because she was cross, I remember. So I ran out of the kitchen and over to the barn. When I got there – at least one of the times, anyway – the children had made it there before me and were standing in front of…I think it was hay bales we had there.’

‘Yes!’ I interrupt her. ‘Hay bales and a tractor!’

‘So it was!’ says Gran, amazed that I have seen it too, even though that’s the whole reason for our having this conversation. Still, I suppose it is odd that, in a way, I’ve seen it more recently. Perhaps it’s odd that I’ve seen it at all, but I think we’re way past caring about that. ‘Hay bales and a tractor,’ she continues. ‘I stood behind the children for a moment, wondering what would happen. I remember standing very still and quiet. There was a tension in the air in that barn that I was afraid to break. It was almost as if the air could crackle. Oh, Ellie, I’m not making any sense, am I? It was a long time ago and-‘

‘You’re making sense, Gran,’ I cut in. ‘Go on!’

Gran pauses again. I’m uncomfortably aware of how much time this is taking and how much time we don’t have. I don’t think she wants to tell me everything but I really, truly need to know. She sighs and continues, slowly, almost haltingly.

‘So there they were, and there I was and, somewhere, I assumed, there was June. Freddy called out to her and I remember looking at him then and he had a stick in his hand. I was fairly certain he meant to hit her with it, or perhaps he just had it by way of self-defence, but I wanted to protect her – to warn her.’ She stops again.

‘What did you call out?’ I ask.

‘That’s just it, Ellie. Nothing. I called out nothing. I could have warned her, I could have stepped in – I could have done something and I did nothing. Oh, Ellie, I’m so ashamed. I was ashamed then and I’ve been ashamed ever since.’

‘So, did he hit her?’

‘No.He didn’t have time, as it turned out. I was still watching him, standing silently behind the three of him when I saw him lean forward, over the hay bales – I remember them clearly now.’ Gran pauses again. I want her to tell me more but I can see this is difficult for her. What I can’t tell is if she’s struggling to remember, or struggling to forget. ‘He leaned forward – I think he was planning to seize hold of her and drag her out, you know? But she was too quick for him, our June. She’d been watching him like a hawk, of course, and she was ready for him. She reached out her hand and grabbed hold of him – by his hair, I think. I remember he hollered in pain. Then she sort of stood up and tumbled him into the hay bales. It was almost comical, just for a moment: the sight of that big, silly boy, falling head first into the hay, with his shorts and sandals sticking straight up in the air.’

‘What happened next? What did Beryl and Ida do?’

‘Oh, nothing at first. They were as taken aback as the rest of us, I suppose. June had the upper hand for a minute and then Freddy managed to roll and loose her grip on his hair. He was shouting about her pulling out his hair, she was shouting – I wouldn’t like to tell you what she said – and then the scuffle began.’ That must be when she got the cuts and bruises, I think. ‘Of course, she was tough, but he was bigger and stronger. He overpowered June and at that point I couldn’t bear to watch. I ran out of the barn.’

‘Were you going to find help?’ I ask, sure that my brave Gran was going to sort things out somehow.

Gran shakes her head. ‘I’m afraid not. I was scared and I wanted to escape, so I ran for the hen house. Oh, Ellie, if only I hadn’t. If only I’d been brave – sensible, even.’

So, what did happen? I wonder. Did Freddy beat her so badly they all thought she’d died? But that wouldn’t make sense, would it? There would be a body and no time travelling. Or did she get stuck in a loop of endless travel? No, that’s ridiculous – she kept going back to the barn. You can’t think someone’s dead if they keep reappearing, can you?

‘What happened, Gran? What happened?’

There is another pause I can’t afford and then Gran says, so quietly I’m not sure I hear her right, ‘Fire.’ I lean in, trying to catch her words and she says it again, this time more clearly, ‘There was a fire, Ellie – a fire in the barn. It went up in flames so quickly, they said. I suppose the hay and the wooden walls and everything – it was like a tinder box. Freddy, Ida and Beryl got out, somehow. Everything was in chaos – there were people looking for me, thinking I’d perished in the fire, when really I was in my coward’s retreat, unaware of the drama unfolding a short distance away.’

‘And June?’ I ask, although I think I know the answer.

‘We never saw her again. The barn was razed to the ground, along with everything in it and, we all thought, June.’

‘But I’m still seeing her, so there’s hope, right?’

‘Yes, there’s hope. Maybe not much, but there’s a chance…oh, Ellie, if there’s a chance, we have to take it!’

I nod. I am going to take that chance, I know I am. I am going to save June and I am going to stop Gran from thinking it was all her fault and I am… completely clueless as to how I’m going to do all of this. While I’m thinking, Gran places her hands either side of my face and says, ‘Go, Ellie – go and make this thing right. Neither of us know how but just go.’ She lets go and I get up, and run out of the room and towards the front door. As I’m about to shut the door behind me she calls out, ‘Ellie!’ I turn around and look back at my Gran, now looking small and old in the hallway. ‘One last thing – be back in time for tea!’

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About Jacqui Searle

I live with a husband, two children and a small, crazy dog. I write when I can, usually about grandmothers, although I haven't figured out why that is yet. In my spare time I walk the dog, bake cakes, sew badly and write. I once drove a steam train - that was amazing. I've also driven a vintage tractor and crewed narrowboats.

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