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A Girl Called Alice

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I.

Once there was a girl you may have known as Alice. Not that Alice, the one who met the White Rabbit: that girl’s name really was Alice, in fact. This Alice was the one who, with her brothers and sister, found a treasure and an Indian uncle who turned out not to be poor at all, spent a summer in a house with a real moat, turned two white mice into quite decent adventurers and united another uncle (Albert's uncle, not their own) with his long-lost love. Those things all happened when Alice was quite young, and if other adventures happened to her and the others as they grew up, they have not told me about them.

Other adventures probably did happen; they were the sort that things happen to. Perhaps you know people of that sort yourself, or maybe you are one: the sort who trips over his front doorstep and uncovers a lost treasure, or who catches an elderly gentleman by the elbow just as he is about to fall under a train and he adopts you and bequeaths his fortune to you, or who meets a magical creature of fabulous antiquity and he gives you three wishes. I have always wished to be that sort of person myself.

Alice was one, and so were her brothers and sisters. And since you knew her as Alice, that is the name I will use for her here, and I will call her sister and brothers Dora, Oswald, Dicky, Noel and H.O., in case you have met them before under those names. Noel was Alice's twin.

I do not know what other adventures befell these Bastables (for that is the name they took when telling their own stories, to disguise their own ancient and honourable name) as they grew up, but once they were grown they found themselves in a real adventure, and no mistaking.

Only this was not the sort of pleasant adventure they had experienced in their callow youths, nor was it one that could be hidden so none of the adults would notice it. This was a war, and it embroiled the whole world in it.

Oswald was studying to become a barrister and he wrote to Alice to say that he was leaving his studies to sign up.

“Here’s my chance for adventure at last!” he wrote, as cheerfully as if he were going to the seaside. “Dicky is leaving his business and will come with me, and next time I write you we’ll be in khaki.”

Noel took leave of Oxford at the end of the term, along with most of the men in his year. By then the war no longer seemed such an adventure.

“I must go, “ he wrote, and Alice, who had heard stories by then about the conditions in France, wrote him back, reminding him to take his muffler and all his warm things and begging him to keep his feet as dry as he could.

Dora had trained as trained as a nurse. Of course she joined the V.A.D at once, but then astonished all who knew her timid, prudent ways by applying to be sent to the hospitals just behind the battle lines. She was so close to the trenches that the nurses could sometimes hear the whistling of shells. Sometimes, when the tide of battle shifted, they had to pack up all their tents, their hospital things and their patients and move to a safer spot.

Dora seemed to gain comfort in helping other women's brothers, since she could not protect her own. Forgetful of self, she earned a reputation as a heroine, refusing to flee under fire as long as her patients needed her, and her letters home were full of wounded soldiers and medicines and bandages.

Alice knew she had not the patience to join Dora in her hospital, and in any case only trained nurses were sent to the field hospitals. H.O. was not old enough to enlist, and he and Alice often commiserated together at having to stay at home.

"As if I were a little boy! And they said that every man is needed who can fight," lamented H.O.

"At least you will grow older," poor Alice would point out. "I'll always be a woman. Oh, if only I had been born a boy!"

When H.O. was finally of age, he signed up immediately and joined his brothers in France. The next day, Alice packed her shortest skirts and her oldest waists, consigned her father and the Indian uncle to each other's care, and became a Land Girl.

I do not know if you know what the Women's Land Army was. If you don't you can just look it up; I don't have time to explain right now. But Alice was in it, and she liked it.

She worked hard and learnt all about farming; her face turned brown, and she felt that she was doing her bit in the war. But the thing she liked most was driving the motorcar, when seed needed to be brought from one place to another or a message had to be taken somewhere.

One morning, she was sent to deliver three other girls to a village far out in the country. They had a most enjoyable drive, talking and laughing all the way down.

At the new farm, they were fed fresh brown bread and farm butter, and milk that was more than half cream, and then the girls were all put to bed on two enormous featherbeds made by the mistress of the farm from her own geese in happier days. (Happier for the farm, I mean, not for the geese.)

In the morning Alice said goodbye to the other girls and set off for the long drive home and it was then that Alice's adventure really began to happen.

II.

On the drive down, Alice had noticed that the road wound beside a quite large gravel pits, near another pit for chalk. These reminded her of something, only she couldn't remember what.

If you have read a book called "Five Children and It", you may be thinking that she jolly well ought to have remembered what, but you must remember that it had been a long time since Alice had read any books of that sort, and besides her head was so full of her work and of her worry for her brothers and Dora that she had scarcely any room to think of anything else anyway.

Without her friends in the motorcar, though, Alice had more time to think, and this time she remembered what that pit reminded her of. Of course, being quite grown-up, Alice did not believe in fairies any longer - at least not really. But there is something about having your nearest and dearest in danger than somehow makes you readier to believe in anything that might help. (Perhaps you have not learnt this yet. In that case I can only hope you never do.)

Also, the world itself had changed so much in those years that it really did begin to seem as if anything might be possible.

At any rate, it was the sort of beautiful spring day that nearly – but not quite – made you forget there was ever such a thing as war, and Alice was in no hurry to get back and shorten her drive.

So when she remembered the thing that was special about the gravel pit next to the chalk pit, she thought, “Oh, why not? It’s a bit silly, but after all it can’t hurt anything. And there’s no one to see.”

She stopped the motorcar and got out, unwinding her motoring veil and leaving it on the seat. Then she walked over to the gravel pit and down into it, taking the safe road down because of course she was far too old to slide.

When she got to the bottom of the pit, she walked over to a sandy place, took off her hat, and began, “I wish—“

“Oh, don’t!” said a voice at her feet.

Alice looked down, where there had been nothing but sand a moment before, and saw an animal with a furry body, It was shaped rather like a spider, but it was covered with soft, brown fur and had hands and feet like a monkey’s. Its eyes were on long stalks like snail eyes, and it could move them in and out like telescopes.

Of course, like all properly-brought-up young ladies, Alice knew that when meeting a person who might possibly be magical, it is safest always to be very, very polite. She stepped back a little, knelt down to bring herself closer to its level, and said, “I beg your pardon, did you speak?”

“Speak!” answered the Psammead, for indeed it was he. “I should say I did speak! Another human coming round with your strenuous nasty wishes, just when I had spent ten years snuggling myself down into just the right position for a good nap! How would you like someone waking you up, just when you had gotten properly to sleep?”

“I do beg your pardon,” said Alice, most humbly. “I didn’t know you were sleeping.”

The Psammead went on grumbling as if it had not heard her, but its voice softened after that. “Here to ask for wishes, I don’t doubt, and it will be all megatheriums and wings and ichthyosaurs and gold pieces until I’m all worn to a shadow, just like the last time.”

“No,” said Alice, gently. “That is – I should quite like to have a wish, if it’s not too much trouble, but only just one wish. You see, there’s only one thing that seems to matter any more.”

The Psammead looked her up and down, its eyes moving on their long stalks. “You’re older than the last lot. I expect it will be some quarrel with your lover, and you want him to come back and say he was in the wrong?”

“No! I have no lover, and if I did I shouldn’t bother you about that. It’s my four brothers – “Alice stopped, as she felt a choke beginning in her throat.

“Unjustly accused by a scheming foe, and you want them released from durance vile?”

“No. I want – I want – I just want them to live until they get home from the war. And my sister Dora too.”

“I see,” replied the Psammead, and its tone was much kinder than before. “Are they knights or pikesmen, or archers?”

“None of those. It’s a horrible new sort of war. They’re soldiers, and my sister’s a nurse, and there’s shells and mortars and poisoned gasses – and can you please help them to be safe? I wish you would.”

The Psammead patted her knee with one of its monkey-like hands, and said “I don’t know. I’ll see what I can do for you.”

Its eyes took on an inward, thoughtful sort of expression, and it began to blow itself up. It seemed to stop halfway, though, and let the air out, then sagged, deflated.

“It’s no good. There’s one thing I can’t do, nor no one can. I’m very sorry for you.”

“You mean –“ There didn’t seem to be enough air in the gravel pit to allow Alice to finish her sentence. She swayed, and the beauty of the day suddenly seemed like a terrible and intrusive thing. “You mean one of them – or more of them – are --?”

“One only. When I got halfway into the wish I could tell from the shape of it that there were four of them instead of five. I am so sorry,” said the Psammead ineffectually, as kind ladies do when they feel unable to help any one with a great sorrow. “Do you still want your wish?”

“Yes, please! Can you please, kindly, protect the rest of them until the war ends and they get home safe? And without putting anyone else in greater risk,” Alice hastened to add, remembering all of the other women’s brothers that Dora was nursing.

The Psammead blew itself out to about three times its proper size, then collapsed onto the sand. “Done,” it said in a weak voice. “Wars are horrid nasty things to be dealing with – but I managed it. They’ll come home to you, hale and sound.”

“Oh, thank you, thank you!” Alice reached for its monkey hands, the tears falling down her cheeks in relieved happiness.

The Psammead backed away, hastily. “Don’t! You’ll get me wet. The tip of my twelfth left whisker has never recovered from the time it got splashed by a wave. You’re a good girl, but go away, do, and don’t tell anyone else where I am. Else they’ll all be plaguing me – first to keep their friends safe, but then to hurt their enemies and win the war for their own side. Wars are a thing you humans have to sort out for yourselves.”

Alice stepped away, to calm the Psammead’s fears, promised, “I won’t tell anyone. And I’ll never ask you for a wish again. But thank you so much!”

“Always happy to oblige,” said the Psammead, clearly meaning just the opposite. It burrowed into the sand and in another moment there was nothing to see in the gravel pit but sand, gravel, and a tear-stained Alice.

 

III.

Instead of returning to the farm where she was working, Alice drove directly home, to the house on Blackheath. No one ever understood why she happened to arrive home only an hour before the telegram about Noel arrived, but her father and uncle were so grateful to have her there that they never asked, and the Land Army matron felt so sorry for her that Alice never got into trouble for returning to her base two days late, with her eyes red and swollen. Alice herself, feeling like she’d lost part of herself when her twin died, never knew how she got back to base without running the car through a hedge or over a pedestrian.

As the war wore on and the sad news came in from Ypres, from the Somme, from Gallipoli, Alice and the other Land Girls leaned over each other to read each story in the newspaper and with trembling fingers traced through the sad lists of the dead and injured. Alice worked herself to exhaustion each day so that she could fall into a dreamless sleep each night; as she worked on the land each day she repeated over to herself the words of the Psammead: “They’ll come home to you, hale and sound”.

As the tide of the war turned and victory began to seem possible after all, Alice clung more feverishly to the words of the Psammead. After all, soldiers die when winning battles as well as when losing them.

Finally, just when it seemed as if the war had always gone on and always would, it ended, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. People all over the world were frantic with joy and it was decided to keep the day on which the war ended as a sacred holiday forever, in memory of those who had served and died in the trenches and on the seas.

Once the delirious celebrations had ended, people settled grimly back to put back together a world that had been torn apart. One of the many unpleasant facets of wars is that once they are over, everything does not go back to normal immediately. Everybody is n the wrong place, and everything has been changed. There are thousands of soldiers to be sent home, and it is not always easy for them to take up the reins of their regular work. Fields normally used for farming have been torn up for battlefields.

Worst of all, people have to put their lives back together around the gaping holes left by those who will never return home, and those who do return sometimes have to learn to do their work without hand or a leg or an eye, or when they can’t sleep for the horrible memories of things they have seen.

Through the hard days of the rebuilding, Alice muttered the same words to herself. In some ways those days were easier than the war, knowing that shells were no longer falling. In some ways they were harder, when the empty waiting seemed endless.

Finally the day came when they were all at home together once again in the big red house on Blackheath, all hale and whole as the Psammead had promised, but not unchanged. Alice felt released, as if she had been hunched over for years, protecting something precious from harm, and it was finally safe to stand up straight again and take a deep breath.

They talked about their plans to return to work and studies, but it was so pleasant to be together again – all but one – that they were in no hurry to begin.

Dora said once, “Sometimes – in the evenings – I feel quite young again, as if the war had never happened. I keep expecting Noel to come around the corner any moment with a new poem to read to us.”

“Yes,” said Dicky, soberly, “But then there’s always the horrid realizing moment when you remember.”

Alice and Dora hid their faces. In those days, they were always feeling the tears come at unexpected moments. Their father and the Indian uncle found it necessary to clear their throats behind a handkerchief all too frequently, and even Oswald, Dicky and H.O. would stop, sometimes in the very middle of a sentence, and look down, with their mouths held very stiff.

Oswald was the last one of all to come home, because he had been a Captain and he had to see his men home first. After he had been at home for three days, and had begun to sort out his things and to feel finally that he was really home, he caught Alice gently by the arm when they met in a hallway.

“Come for a walk,” he said. “I want to talk with you.”

When they had walked by the fields a little way from the house, he began talking, in a low voice. “You know Dick knew Noel’s Captain at Oxford – he was his tutor. And he wrote to Dick about Noel – said there was no braver soldier in his regiment. They were in a bad place – well, there were enough of those. But they were ordered to make an attack and it – it didn’t come off well. The Captain wrote to Dick that Noel pulled three other men to safety before the Jerries got him.”

Alice looked up. “I know,” she said, as softly. “In his letters to me he complained about the damp and the mud and the food, but he never wrote a single word about the danger. None of you did.”

“It’s not a bit like I used to think it was – war, I mean. It was dirty and ugly. We saw heroes every day over there, but they weren’t in fine red uniforms leading glorious charges – just mud and brown and cold and uncomfortableness. When you wrote home, you didn’t want to talk of it – you only wanted to think of the green and clean of England, and hope that you were doing something to keep it that way.”

Oswald went on, “We had a bit of a break and I saw him, Noel, I mean, a few weeks before he – went over the top. We all knew we might not come back, but I think he was somehow sure of it. The poet in him, I expect. He gave me this to give to you – in case I saw you before he did, he said, but I knew he meant in case he never saw you again.”

They leaned over the battered paper together and read,

In Flanders Field the poppies grow
And bend down when the wind doth blow
To sing sweet lullabies of woe
To soldiers resting down below.

Alice looked up at Oswald, her mouth smiling and her eyes full of tears. “He was a good man. He never was a very good poet, was he?”

“No,” he answered. “But I hope he never knew it.”