Authors: Rachel Ennis
‘Ever met Sean Stevens’ wife Gaynor, have you?’
‘I don’t think so.’ Jess carefully placed five bowls on a tray. Without even glancing at her, Frances Chiddock picked up the tray and carried it out into the hall.
‘She works in a jeweller’s in Truro. Always looks smart. It can’t be easy for her.’
‘What, looking smart?’ Jess had filled another five bowls. Susan Haines hurried back from carrying out plates of buttered rolls and picked up the tray. ‘Thanks, Susan.’
Viv glared at her. ‘No, I mean Sean being like he is.’
‘In a wheelchair?’
‘Coming on four years now. Still, at least he got good compensation.’
‘I think he’d probably rather be able to walk,’ Jess replied.
‘’Course he would. All I’m saying is if the machine had belonged to the farm instead of being hired in for the job, it could have been a lot worse. The money made their place easier for his wheelchair. Jimmy looks after their older vehicles and he said Sean have got this handsome great office where he do all the farm paperwork. But he said Sean have changed.’
‘Of course he has. It can’t be easy for either of them.’
On Thursday morning Elsie opened Jess’s front door and peered in after knocking. ‘I aren’t interrupting am I?’
‘No. Come in.’ Jess held up floury hands. ‘I’m just making some fairings. How are you?’
‘I’m all right, my lover. I’m catching the two o’clock bus. You sure you aren’t busy?’
‘Why? What is it?’
‘If you got a minute while I’m gone, would you look in on Tegan?’
‘Of course I will. Why?’
‘Something’s wrong but she won’t tell me what ’tis. Looking proper wisht she is, and gone all quiet. She idn like herself at all. These past two mornings she’ve come down with her eyes all pink and puffed up. I don’t want to go on to her. Poor little maid get enough of that from Annie. But she like you, so maybe she’ll tell you what’s wrong.’
Jess thought of the research she had planned. Then she remembered asking Tom to talk to Jimmy. When friends needed help, you gave it. ‘I’ll do my best, Elsie.’
‘That’s all I ask, my bird. I’ll be back in a couple hours. Anything you want while I’m in town?’
‘Not this time.’
As the door closed, Jess finished rubbing finely grated lemon peel into the bowl containing flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and powdered ginger. Rinsing and drying her hands she switched off the oven. Butter, sugar, and treacle waited in one small pan, half a pint of milk in another, and a bowl containing a frothy beaten egg stood on the worktop. It would come to no harm.
As Tegan opened the door, Jess understood Elsie’s concern. The girl’s face was pale and blotchy, her lank hair needed washing, and her eyes were swollen. ‘Nan’s gone in to town.’
‘So why have you come?’
Despite the girl’s obvious unhappiness, Jess knew teenagers believed no one in the entire world had ever felt the way they did so could not possibly understand. If she offered sympathy Tegan would push her away.
‘I’m wondering the same thing. I was in the middle of baking. Then I have some research to do. But your nan is my friend. I think the world of her and she’s worried about you.’
As Tegan opened her mouth, Jess raised a hand. ‘Before you tell me you don’t need anyone worrying about you, you should look in a mirror. Elsie doesn’t want to nag. She says you get enough well-meant advice from Annie. So she kept quiet hoping you would tell her what’s bothering you. But you haven’t. She loves you dearly, Tegan, and she’s doing her best to make you comfortable and happy. It’s not kind to shut her out.’
Anguish crossed Tegan’s face and her mouth trembled. Pulling her smartphone from the pocket of her dressing gown, she quickly thumbed keys then shoved it at Jess.
Taking it and reading the cruel, spite-filled messages, Jess found it hard to hide her horror. ‘What kind of people write this stuff?’ She handed it back swiftly. ‘Shall we talk inside?’ As Tegan turned away, Jess stepped over the threshold and closed the door.
‘That’s why I didn’t tell Nan,’ Tegan dropped her mobile onto the kitchen table and folded onto a chair. ‘She’d have got mad. She thought because she hasn’t got internet I couldn’t log on to Facebook. She doesn’t know about Wi-Fi hotspots.’
Her eyes filled and tears trickled down her cheeks. She wiped them away with her sleeve. ‘I wish I hadn’t seen – that.’ She jerked her head towards the phone. ‘I’m not ... what they say. Jeremy’s the only boy I’ve been with. My friends know that. They used to tease me about being frigid.’
Jess pulled a chair from under the other side of the table and sat down. ‘With friends like them you don’t need enemies.’
‘They didn’t mean anything by it,’ Tegan said quickly, still unwilling to accept how brutally the people she trusted had betrayed her. ‘They were trying to do me a favour.’
Tegan tucked her hair behind her ear. ‘They said nobody enjoys it the first time so best to get it out of the way. But that made it sound like it didn’t mean anything and it should.’ Tegan’s look was wary and defiant.
‘They laughed at me for wanting to wait and do it with someone special.’ Renewed misery brought fresh tears.
The tissue box on the dresser was empty so Jess tore off a sheet of kitchen towel and passed it across the table then sat down again.
Tegan nodded. ‘I really loved Jeremy.’
‘Jeremy?’ Jess prompted gently.
‘Jeremy Stanton. His dad’s an architect in Truro. I thought – I believed he –’ She wiped her nose. ‘I know he never actually
– But he did tell me I was beautiful. He said no other girl had ever made him feel like I did. He said if I loved him I would – do what he wanted.’
Jess clenched her teeth and swallowed her temper.
‘He –’ Tegan’s voice faded. ‘He said it would be safe.’
‘Do you still love him?’
Tegan hesitated then shook her head. Jess had never seen such naked anguish. ‘He only had me for a bet.’
‘Amber texted me. She heard him talking to two of his mates in the car park after school. He told them where and when we’d done it and said they owed him the new Warcraft game.’
‘Oh, Tegan.’ Jess wondered why Amber, presumably a friend, had thought it necessary to pass on something so hurtful.
Tegan shook her head, tears flowing again. ‘I can’t believe he did that. He’s ever so good-looking and all the girls fancy him. When he started coming on to me it made me feel like I was special. Now they’re all laughing and I feel so
. We only did it once but I’m having a baby and people are saying horrible things about me. I wanted to tell Nan but I couldn’t because I’m not s’posed to go online.’
The knowledge that, despite his handsome appearance and expensive education, Jeremy Stanton was selfish, shallow, and totally untrustworthy would prove a valuable lesson for Tegan. But not yet: not while the wound was still raw and bleeding.
‘Trolls and bullies are cowards, Tegan. They hide behind their computers because they haven’t got the guts to admit who they really are. Nor would they dare to say these things to your face. But that doesn’t mean they can get away with it. I want you to take screenshots of all those posts, then forward them to me.’ She picked up a biro and used envelope from the clutter on the table and wrote down her email address. ‘Then delete your Facebook account.’
‘Why? What are you going to do?’
‘I’m going to get this stopped.’
‘I’ll tell you after. It won’t rebound on you, I promise.’ Getting up, Jess pushed the chair under the table. ‘When your nan gets home you must tell her about these horrible comments. You don’t have to show her or even tell her what they said. Just explain that they are the reason you’ve been so upset.’
‘She’ll be mad at me for going on the net.’
‘I expect she will. And that’s fair enough because she was right, wasn’t she?’
Tegan hiccupped as a sob caught in her chest, then nodded.
‘But most of all she’ll be relieved to know what has made you so unhappy.’ Jess studied the girl’s bent head. ‘Is there something else?’
After a long moment, Tegan nodded. ‘I did want to tell her. But I was afraid she’d send me back.’
‘To your parents?’ As Tegan nodded again Jess walked round the table to give her a quick hug. ‘For heaven’s sake, girl. Don’t you know her better than that? Your nan wants you to feel happy and safe. She loves having you here. She loves
. But part of that love means setting boundaries. If you had listened to her, you wouldn’t have read those spiteful comments. Tegan, what other people think of you is none of your business.’
Tegan pulled free and tossed her head. ‘Easy for you to say.’
‘Yes it is, because I’ve been there. My husband died owing a lot of money. Paying it back cost me my home and nearly everything I owned. Then I learned he had a mistress and a teenage daughter. Everyone who knew us had an opinion. How could I not have suspected? Was I blind or just stupid? I asked myself those same questions over and over and wondered if I could trust my own judgement about anything ever again.’
Tegan slumped down onto the chair again. ‘What did you do?’
‘My GP sent me to a counsellor who helped me see that spiteful remarks are usually made by people who are hurt, angry, and bitter about situations in their own lives. But if they can’t sort out their problems, what right do they have to pass judgement on mine? I realised then that no one else’s opinion matters unless you let it. Why would you give them that power? It’s
life, not theirs.’
‘I never thought of that.’
‘I’m three times your age and I hadn’t thought of it either, not until the counsellor explained. Look, go and have a shower and wash your hair. Then when you’re dressed, come in to me and I’ll blow-dry it for you. I was making ginger fairings when your nan stopped by. They’ll be out of the oven by the time you’re ready.’
The girl’s smile lit her face. ‘I love fairings. Nan does too.’
‘Crisp or chewy?’
‘I’ll give you some to bring back for her.’
Later that afternoon as she worked her way through various databases, Jess learned that Billy-Joe Spencer’s unit was camped in woods that belonged to a farm on the south side of the village. Then she went into local history archives. These contained local people’s memories of the war years.
For young men used to unlimited fresh fruit, milk, butter, and meat, food rationing in Cornwall came as a severe shock. To counter plummeting morale, American convoys began bringing over tinned fruit and sweets along with lorries, tanks, guns, and ammunition.
One farm was split in half by a new road. It bypassed the village and led down to a beach that had been strengthened with concrete matting strong enough to support tanks that would crawl along the newly built pier and onto huge landing craft for the crossing to France.
The roads and storage areas, the camps, and the beach reinforcement were built by black soldiers. The villagers found them friendly and polite. Jess read a quote from one farmer who said he really liked the Americans, but not the whites they brought with them.
Because local people weren’t aware of the deep-rooted hatred caused by the American civil war, they didn’t understand the animosity of whites towards blacks. To avoid trouble, the black troops had their camp at the top of the hill. The whites were in the woods half a mile lower down.
Segregation spilled over into the soldiers’ social lives. In villages that had only one pub, blacks and whites were allocated different nights. US military police, known as snowdrops because of their white helmets, made regular patrols to make sure both groups complied.
This reminded Jess of Linda Trewearn’s claim that her mother would never have gone out with a black soldier because it would have attracted attention and gossip.
Referring to her notes, Jess found Alfred Evans’s undertaking business in the local trade directory. His nephew John Evans, who Linda’s mother – Diane Cowling as she was then – was courting, was also mentioned.
Returning to the local history archives she was glancing through an index and saw
Cornwall’s secret army.
Quickly finding the page she began reading.
This resistance movement comprised self-contained ‘Auxiliary Units’ of six to eight men. As fishermen, farm workers, carpenters, garage proprietors, blacksmiths, and undertakers they were in reserved occupations. Their task was to defend the coast in event of an invasion. Many of the group leaders were schoolmasters or farmers.
The masters would be comfortable with organising and discipline, while the farmers had detailed knowledge of the local area. They would also be good shots familiar with guns.
Following investigation by the police, recruits had to sign the Official Secrets Act. Speaking of their activities to anyone would have been an act of treason punishable by death.
After fitness training, they took part in night exercises, learning to move silently through the countryside. They practised unarmed combat, throwing grenades while lying flat, and breaking into selected targets to plant dummy explosives.
Had John Evans and his uncle been part of this secret army? It would certainly explain why John had told Diane he and his uncle were in a different Home Guard platoon.
Reading on, Jess learned that the Auxiliary Units were disbanded in November 1944. Once the war ended so did the need for secrecy. Wouldn’t the men have wanted a memento of their comradeship? After a short search in the archives, she found a photograph.
‘Yes,’ she whispered, smiling as she read the names at the bottom. She switched on her printer and printed a copy.
es, she told me,’ Elsie said when she looked in the following morning while Jess was washing up. ‘Poor little maid. I’d give them what-for if I got my hands on ’em.’ Anger had brought hot colour to her lined face. ‘Anyhow, that’s not why I come, though I’m some grateful, Jess. What it is, Alan have just rung. In some taking he was. He’ve had a letter from the Stantons’ solicitor saying they’re going to sue for defamation.’