AN EVENING SWIM
I was in the sea when the first bomb fell. Some way out, and floating on my back. Staring up into a cloudless sky. It was a Friday evening towards the end of June. As one of the planes banked to the south, over Mont Fiquet, I could make out stark black shapes on its wings. Swastikas. Fear swerved through me, dark and resonant, like a swarm of bees spilling from a hive. Upright suddenly, I trod water, my breathing rapid, panicky. Like everybody on the island, I had been dreading this moment. Now it had come. There were several planes, and they were flying high up, as if wary of anti-aircraft fire. Didn’t they know that all our troops had been evacuated and only civilians remained? A wave caught me, and I went under. The ocean seemed to shudder. When I came up again a column of smoke was rising, treacle black, above the headland to the east.
I began to swim back to the shore. My limbs felt weak and uncoordinated, and even though the tide was going in it seemed to take a long time to make any progress. A knot of people huddled on the beach. Others were running towards the road. One of them tripped and fell, but nobody waited or even noticed. Claude had swum earlier. She would be upstairs, smoothing cream into her arms and legs. Edna, our housekeeper, would be preparing supper, a tumbler of neat whiskey on the windowsill above the sink. Our cat would be sprawled on the terrace, the flagstones still warm from the sun—or perhaps, like me, he had been alarmed by the explosions, and had darted back into the house. It seemed wrong that the waves paid no attention to what was happening, but kept rolling shorewards, unrushed, almost lazy.
I was wading through the shallows when I heard another distant thump. It sounded halfhearted, but a fluttering had started in my stomach. Normally, I would dry myself on the beach, savoring the chill on my skin, the last of the light, the peace. Instead, I gathered up my shoes and my towel and hurried back towards the house, feeling clumsy, nauseous.
As I reached the slipway, two more planes swooped over the bay, much lower now, their engines throbbing, hoarse. I cowered beside an upturned rowing boat. The chatter of machine guns, splashes lifting into the air like a row of white weeds. I felt embarrassed, though, a forty-seven-year-old woman behaving like a child, and stood up quickly. I entered our garden through the side door. Claude was standing on the grass bank that overlooked the beach. The hose lay on the lawn behind her, water rushing from the nozzle. Dressed in a white bathing suit, she had one hand on
her hip. In the other she held a lighted cigarette. She had the air of a general surveying a battlefield. They might have been her planes, her bombs.
“Were you in the sea?” she asked. I nodded. “Yes.”
“I thought you were upstairs.” “No.”
“So you saw them?” I nodded again.
“I saw everything,” she said. “I even saw the faces of the pilots.”
Her voice was calm, and she was giving off a kind of radiance. I had seen the look before, but couldn’t remember where or when. I stood below her on the lawn, my hair dripping. The short grass prickled between my toes.
“I have a strange feeling, something like elation.” She faced east, towards Noirmont. Smoke dirtied the pure blue sky. “I think it’s because we’re going to be tested.”
“You don’t think we’ve been tested enough?” “Not like this.”
Earlier that month, we had heard rumors that Churchill was prepared to abandon the Channel Islands—they were too close to mainland France, too hard to defend—but there had been no mention of any such decision on the BBC. The news bulletins were full of bluster. The Nazis had reached the Seine, we were told, but “our boys” would be waiting on the other side, and they would “give as good as they got.” The next thing we knew, Nazi motorcyclists were spotted on the Normandy coast, near Granville, and “our boys” had retreated to Dunkirk. In mid-June, once the troops stationed on Jersey and Guernsey had been shipped back to England, the civilian population was offered the chance to evacuate. Long queues formed outside the Town Hall, and the telephone lines jammed as islanders asked each other for advice. It was a time for drastic measures. Two dogs and a macaw were found shot dead in a back garden in St. Helier. A man arrived at the airport with a painting by Picasso under his arm. His wife was wearing a sable coat, even though the temperature was in the upper seventies. They had no other luggage. Half the population put their names down for evacuation—more than twenty thousand people—but the Bailiff, Alexander Coutanche, declared that he was staying, come what may, and in the end only six or seven thousand left. There followed a week when things seemed to return to normal. The sense of calm was abrupt and eerie—you could almost hear the grass growing on the lawns of all the empty houses—but we knew it wouldn’t last, and now the Nazis had bombed the island it was clear the occupation was only days away, or even hours. “Perhaps you were right,” I said. “Perhaps it would have been more sensible to leave . . .”
Claude shook her head. “We already had that discussion— and anyway, it’s too late now. There aren’t any boats.”
“I know. It’s just—”
She stepped down off the grass bank. “Come here.” She took the towel and began to rub me dry. “You’re trembling.”
“It’s probably just shock,” I said. “I was in the sea when they came over.”
She wrapped the towel round my shoulders and led me back across the lawn. Once inside, she poured me a cognac. I swallowed it in one. Afterwards, we went out to the road and looked towardsSt. Helier, but there was nothing to see except the black smoke drifting southwards on the summer breeze. The planes had gone. The skies were quiet.
Later, while we were having supper, the push and pull of the waves could be heard through the open window, and it was possible to believe that nothing had happened. Still, we sent Edna home early, telling her not to bother with the dishes.