Christine frowned. “That can’t be right.” She had decided to put her family tree together and, having come to a full stop on her mother’s side, she had just started on her father’s. She looked at the search result on the screen and shook her head, her dark auburn hair tumbling around her heart shaped face. It was ridiculous, the records must be wrong.
They gave the date of her grandparents wedding as 14th September 1947. That was correct; she’d seen pictures of the wedding with the date on. But her father’s birth date was registered as 10th June 1941. She shook her head again and re-entered the name and place of birth, but the results came back the same. Perhaps her grandmother had been married before? Intrigued, she started looking for previous marriage records, but came up with nothing. She smiled as her imagination began to run riot. Perhaps her grandmother had fallen in love with a dashing pilot who had been killed before they could get married. Unfortunately she couldn’t ask because she had died the previous year followed a few months later by her grandfather.
Christine turned her attention back to the screen. If the records were correct then her father was actually seven years older than he said he was.
“So what dark secrets have you found out?” Tom’s voice broke into her thoughts and she turned around, smiling at him.
“You can laugh,” She reached up to kiss him. “Look at this!” She indicated the screen and Tom looked closer.
“So your grandmother got pregnant with your Dad before she got married?” He shrugged. “It’s hardly the end of the world.”
“But Granddad was German and the war was on.” Christine was thoughtful. “Dad can’t possibly be Granddad’s son. Nan must have had another boyfriend, fiancée or something earlier, before she met him. But if that was the case why lie about his date of birth?”
“Well you know how they frowned upon that kind of thing then. She would probably have told people that her ‘husband’ had died rather than admit she wasn’t married with a child.” Tom replied. “You sure she wasn’t married before?”
“No, I’ve checked, there’s nothing to say she was married or engaged until she met Granddad.”
“Does his birth certificate say who his father was?”
Christine frowned. “No, it says unknown.”
“You’ll have to ask your father.” Tom was growing bored with the conversation. “He’ll probably know more.”
Christine nodded. It really didn’t make much sense but maybe Tom was right. Times were different then.
“I was putting together our family tree on the computer the other day and I came across something rather strange.” Christine’s voice betrayed her nervousness. Her father was busy weeding, his head bowed, and she couldn’t see the expression on his face.
“Oh?” Her father replied without looking up or asking any more.
Christine gave an inward sigh and tried again. “Its showing your birth date as 10th June 1941, I thought it was 1947?”
There was silence and then her father spoke. “And computers don’t lie do they?”
Christine stared at him in surprise. His head was still down and she still couldn’t see his face but she knew her father well enough to realise that something wasn’t right.
“Yes there are mistakes,” she began patiently. “But this is a copy of your birth certificate.” She held out the piece of paper and waited for some response.
For a few moments he carried on weeding then he sat back on his heels and rubbed his back. “It’s a long story but I suppose it doesn’t matter anymore. Come on I’ll put the kettle on.”
He handed her a mug of tea and they both sat down, she on the settee, he on his favourite armchair. Christine waited, an expectant expression on her face. He was staring into space remembering how he had felt when his mother had told him. Of course the war was much closer then, only twenty years had passed. It was over sixty years ago now, people thought differently. Surely it couldn’t matter anymore?
It was very dark, the waves crashing angrily on the shore echoed along the emptiness of the beach. The cottages had long been empty, their inhabitants evacuated by the military for security reasons at the beginning of the war. The lone sentry walked slowly up and down the beach, his boots making no noise on the soft shingle that covered the shoreline. He had walked this way many times and expected to do so again.
In the shadows behind the beach a young girl darted behind a large tree. Tilly had arranged to meet her boyfriend, Sam, in one of the deserted cottages. But he was late and she was beginning to think he wasn’t going to turn up. She shivered, it was early autumn and she was starting to feel cold. She pulled her cardigan more tightly around her and wished she wasn’t wearing her best skirt. She had known Sam for several years, they had grown up together and she couldn’t understand why he was late. She settled back against the tree, using it to shelter her from the worst of the breeze blowing off the sea and decided to give him a few more moments before returning to her parent’s farm house in the next village.
“Tilly!” The voice was quite close and she jumped.
“Where have you been? I was just about to go home.” He could hear the anger in her voice.
“Sorry love. There are troops everywhere. They must be having a night exercise or something. I couldn’t get passed them.”
Tilly kept her back to him and he sighed. “Come on Tilly, don’t be like that. It’s not my fault. You know I’d have been here on time if I could of.” The Suffolk dialect was always more pronounced when he was nervous and Tilly slowly relented.
“Come on then, the cottage on the end is open we can sit in there. At least that way the sentry won’t see us and we won’t have to whisper.”
They were heading towards the cottages when they heard a noise out to sea. They both turned around and Tilly gasped.
“Oh my God, the invasion, it’s started!” Sam was so startled he forgot to whisper.
“Go and get help boy.” The sentry ignored the fact they weren’t meant to be there and was staring transfixed at the numerous large ships that had just come into view. The moon was bright enough for them to see men scrambling down nets into smaller boats and Tilly’s legs began to tremble.
“Get out of here, go and raise the alarm.” The sentry had pulled himself together and was already blowing his whistle.
Sam hurried back down the road with Tilly at his heels. Across fields and streams they ran until they came across the troops taking a rest near a small hill.
“The invasion….” Sam gasped, struggling to get his breath.
The young private on guard was about to laugh when the faint sound of a whistle reached them. The soldier looked around and then he was gone in the direction of the other men. Sam and Tilly followed, still panting hard after their run. The soldier spoke to another man who came over.
“Where are they?”
“Shingle Street.” Tilly answered before Sam could say anything. There was a brief hesitation then they all grabbed their weapons and rushed passed her leaving them alone. Tilly turned to follow them.
“Where are you going?” Sam caught her arm.
“I’m going back to see if there’s anything I can do.” Her voice was defiant and Sam groaned. It was hopeless talking Tilly out of anything once she’d set her mind to it.
“What can you do? You’re a girl.”
Tilly reacted to the scorn in his voice and pulled her arm away. “I can shoot as well as any man and this is my country. You can stay there if you want. I’m going back to help, even if it’s just with the wounded.” She disappeared back the way they had come leaving Sam standing in the field staring at her retreating back.
Tilly had no idea what she was going to do; she just felt she had to do something. It was much cooler now, but she was too hot from running to notice. Although she crashed through hedges and caught her skirt and cardigan on vicious thorns, she felt compelled to go on, ignoring the voice in her head that insisted she should be running in the opposite direction. After several moments the silence was shattered by the unmistakable sounds of guns firing and she could see a faint glow in the sky in front of her. Undeterred she carried on until suddenly she had reached the line of troops defending the coastline. She had stopped running and was staring out at the sea when rough hands threw her on the floor and her mouth was full of sand.
“What the hell are you doing you silly cow?” The voice was harsh with a London accent.
“I thought I could help.” The words sounded stupid even to her.
“Get yourself killed more like.” He replied. “Well you’re here now so you’d better stay. Just keep your head down and if they look like they’re gonna get ashore, run like hell.”
Tilly nodded and sank back into the bushes.
Sam hesitated, sighed and followed Tilly back towards Shingle Street. He had no idea what he was going to do when he got back there but he couldn’t leave her out there all on her own. It seemed to take him forever to reach the cottages but when he did he had no idea where to find her. He could hear shouting, the air was filled with the sound of guns and he could smell smoke which appeared to be coming from the beach but he couldn’t see Tilly anywhere.
Telling himself that she must be down by the beach he made his way carefully towards the sound of the fighting.
“How odd.” Tilly stared out towards the sea. It looked like the waves were alight. She closed her eyes and then opened them again. No she could definitely see flames on the sea. Then drifting on the wind, came the cries and screams of terror. Tilly looked round at the young men surrounding her and saw the shocked expressions on their faces.
“What’s happening?” Her voice was barely louder than a whisper, but somehow they heard her.
“Looks like they’ve set fire to the sea to stop the bastards landing.” The voice was that of the young man who’d pulled her down when she’d first arrived. She could hear the revulsion in his voice and she felt sick.
The firing had stopped and the only sound she could hear was the screaming from the sea and she wished she could close her ears as easily as her eyes.
Sam stared at the flames burning on the ocean and offered a quick prayer for the men engulfed in it. He hated the Germans and he didn’t want them to invade but somehow this was difficult to stomach. He wondered how they had soaked the sea so thoroughly, then it came to him. They must have had some underwater pipes already filled with petrol, waiting for just such an attempt. He wondered if they had the same defences all the way around the coast. As dreadful as it was it seemed to have worked. The terrible screaming had now stopped and all he could hear was the gentle lapping of the sea on the shore and the crackling of the waves still burning on the sea. He shivered and turned his attention back to the beach to see if he could find Tilly.
“Keep out of sight.” The soldier’s warning came just in time. The Captain was heading towards them. Tilly did as she was told, a sudden feeling of dread overtook her and she wondered what would happen to her if they knew she had seen this. Instinctively she knew this would be kept secret and her heart began to pound so loudly against her chest she thought they would be able to hear it.
“Tilly! Tilly!” Sam’s voice came clearly across the beach and Tilly started. Forgetting her fear she was about to stand up when the soldier pushed her back down.
“For God’s sake stay out of sight.” She was about to struggle when she heard the Captain’s voice.
“You! You there! What are you doing here? It’s a forbidden zone.”
Sam was about to say he was looking for his girlfriend when something made him stop. He had no idea why, just a feeling of menace and something in the eyes of the Captain whose face he could clearly see in the light from the fading fires in the water.
“It’s me, the one who told you about the invasion.” He could hear the fear in his voice and he swallowed nervously. “I just wanted to see what was going on.”
The Captain walked up to him, pulled out his gun and fired. Sam fell to the floor and Tilly almost screamed. Almost but not quite. Instead she gasped, a noise that was hidden by the gasps of astonishment and disbelief around her.
The Captain turned back to the men who were now standing up. His face was grim. “Clear the beach of any trace of this. I don’t need to remind you that you are all bound by the Official Secrets Act and that we are at War. Put all the bodies on the truck and go back inland. Dig a large hole and bury any bodies you find. Those that are washed up later will look the results of U-boat raids, RAF successes and shipping casualties. And don’t forget, you never saw any of this.”
Tilly shrank back into the trees, at any moment expecting one of the men to denounce her but they didn’t. Instead they began combing the shore line for the dead, loading the burnt bodies onto the large truck that had just arrived.
It was almost dawn by the time Tilly felt safe enough to come out of the trees. The soldiers had long since gone but she had been too terrified to emerge from her hiding place. The beach was deserted apart from the single sentry walking slowly up and down. Tilly waited until he had reached the far end then made her way carefully to the cottages, hoping she could take the short cut back across the fields without being seen.
She had reached the last cottage when she heard a faint moaning sound. She stopped and listened carefully but there was nothing. Thinking it was her imagination she started to walk again only to find her arms pinned behind her and knife at her throat.
“Do not scream, I will not hurt you.” The voice was heavily accented and Tilly froze. Terrified she nodded and the knife moved away from her throat. She slowly turned around to be confronted by a German, his uniform was charred and his face was blackened by oil, but other than that he seemed unharmed.
“What do you want?” The words were out before she could think about them and she almost smiled at the stupidity of the question. “Sorry, you want to escape don’t you?’
To her astonishment he gave a wry smile. “Yes, very much.” He frowned. “I do not think I will live very long if they catch me here do you?”
Tilly shook her head and wondered why she suddenly cared so much about the life of one German. Perhaps it was her own sense of decency, she had no idea. She just know that she should help him escape, not back to his country but at least out of the area so that he would just be locked up as a POW.
She realised he was watching her. “I’ll help you get out of the area but I won’t help you get back to Germany.”
He looked at her for a few moments and then lowered the knife. “Thank you. My name is Erlich von Hausen.” He held out his hand.
As if in a dream Tilly shook it. “Tilly Jenkins.”
“Well Tilly Jenkins, I think we should leave here before the sentry finds us.”
Tilly nodded and they headed towards the trees that shielded the small fishing village and began walking towards the next village.
The bells were ringing for church and Tilly looked at Sam playing happily in the garden with his football. As she watched him play Tilly wondered once again whether Erlich was still alive, whether he had survived the war or like so many others had been killed. She smiled. So many years had passed since she’d seen him she doubted whether he would even remember her. But she had never forgotten him. He had come into her life in such a strange way and yet, even though they were enemies they had been drawn to each other.
“You haven’t changed at all.” The voice broke into her thoughts and she spun around, startled.
“Erlich?” The man who stood there was much thinner but she recognised him immediately. His blonde hair was longer, his skin was tanned from the sun but the blue eyes were as clear and warm as she remembered them.
“Oh my God, Erlich.”
She fought the dizziness that threatened to overwhelm her and concentrated on the man standing in front of her. His expression was tender and she blushed, suddenly feeling shy, but he reached out his arms for her and she allowed him to pull her into his arms.
“I have thought of you every day for nearly five years.” His whispered words made her heart soar.
“I thought you would have forgotten me.” Her words were little more than a whisper.
“How could I ever forget the angel who saved me from certain death, who hid me for weeks until I could leave the area and who helped me survive the war by handing me over to the RAF?”
Tilly stepped back, wondering if he was being sarcastic, but she only saw tenderness and gratitude in his eyes.
“I was afraid you would be angry.”
He stared into her eyes. “I was absolutely furious at first.” He smiled suddenly. “But then I remembered what you’d said. You would not help me to escape back to Germany but you would help me escape the area so I could be a POW.” He stroked her hair gently sending shivers down her spine. “But I finally understood so..., well here I am.”
Tilly relaxed and snuggled into his arms hardly able to believe he was actually with her. Then she remembered Sam who was watching them with curiosity.
“This is Sam my son.” She indicated Sam who ran over to stare up at the German. Erlich smiled down at Sam and recognition dawned.
“Is..?’” He started to ask, but Tilly quickly distracted Sam and waited until his back was turned and he was out of earshot.
“Yes, Sam is your son, but no one knows. They think he is Sam’s son. You remember the boy who was shot on the beach that night?” Even talking about it bought back the memories and she shivered. “When I found out I was pregnant you had been captured and Sam’s death had just been reported. They said he’d died as a result of being shot by a German pilot so I said he was the father and no one questioned me.” She hesitated. “No one must ever know, especially Sam.”
Erlich looked about to argue, then he changed his mind. “I understand. It would not be a good idea to mention that we knew each other in the war anyway. But after the things we saw…… Probably best to say we have just met.”
Tilly nodded as the enormity of the lie they would have to tell hit her. But then she smiled. At least eventually they could be together.
“They were married four months later. They put up with a lot of opposition as you can imagine. Germans weren’t very popular. But they proved everyone wrong and were very happy. They told me when I was twenty one. It was a great shock. I’d always believed Erlich to be my step father but we got over it. I’m glad you know.”
“What about the attempted invasion at Shingle Street?” Christine asked. “You know the rumours of the sea being on fire and burned bodies being found are true.”
He gave a wry smile. “Yes but who is going to believe me? In any case it’s all so long ago, does it really matter anymore?”tart writing here ...