Titty Alone, or Mavis’s Nightmare
The account is intentionally undated, as, with minor variations, these events could have happened at any point between her first nightmare in 1944, and her sad death in 2006.
(This tale is envisaged as being put together by Titty and Dick’s two adult children: written at some point soon after their Mother’s death.
It follows on a long time after the events recounted in the three “Whatever happened to Nancy Blackett?” tales, and is the final part of what those tales have grown into – a full length novel that can never be published, as "the policy of the Executors of the Arthur Ransome Literary Estate is not to approve or permit any sequels or additions to the existing Swallows and Amazons® canon.")
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Mavis Callum sat on the fallen tree-trunk, with silent tears streaming down her face.
He was dead! Killed by a stray bomb. Dead.
Her Richard, her Dick – the friend from her youth, the stay and comfort in her adulthood.
Her memory filled unbidden with a jumble of family life. Those letters they had written, with the shy, tentative way their mutual love had grown. How it had slowly, oh so slowly, been allowed out from the secret places until it blossomed in the full light of their lovely wedding day. The way he had supported her through that dreadful loss, the loss of the one who should have been their first-born child. The way he had encouraged her, helped her to face the future, and to see that though the still-birth was the ending of one life, it did not have to be the ending of all life.
Then the joys of realising she was carrying again, and the wonderful feelings as the baby grew within her . . . . but then that bomb! That hateful bomb. That tragic night, with just one bomb, dropped at random by a fleeing Heinkel, the one that landed on the works at Wolverton . . . killing her dear, dear Richard, and the two of his colleagues who were working through the night with him, racing against time to produce the updated version of their device.
So now she was a widow: a pregnant widow. Oh yes, they’d given her time off from work – in fact the Doctor had said she must take three weeks away, as she would be totally unable to manage the long watches and intense concentration that being at Pembroke V demanded.
Time away from her work, yes, away from Bletchley Park – but that meant it was also time away from her friends, from her colleagues, the people who knew her, supported her, cared for her. She needed to rest, to recuperate, to try and get over the loss, to do all she could to look after her unborn child: their child, Dick’s child. The babe within her who would be all she had left of him, all that remained to show that she had been married to the most loving, caring, wonderful man in the world . . .
The tears ran anew down her face, as the grief swept over her once more.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
But tears do eventually ease, and the blustery November winds so chilled her wet face that she simply had to wipe it dry. Slowly Mavis looked up, and through her thinning tears she began to take in the oh so dreadfully familiar sights around her. So much here had changed, but not everything. So much had gone, but some remained.
That was Dixon’s Farm across the water, with the plump, white geese still milling around the yard, unaware that their demise was only weeks away. That was Houseboat Bay, where Captain Flint had lived for so many years. Dear old Captain Flint, the retired pirate of her imagination. Always willing to join in their childhood adventures: an adult, yet at the same time an overgrown child who never quite grew up. He’d had to grow up the day he went to see his publisher though, and found himself in the middle of the London Blitz.
He’d fled back to Beckfoot and his Lake, but the shock of what he’d seen never left him, and all the jollity and adventure had been blown out of him by the power of the bombs that fell just two streets away, leaving him with blast-weakened lungs and ears that barely worked. Never again would he fire his little brass cannon. Never again would he walk the plank into the chilly waters of the Lake. With eardrums as damaged as his, he knew he could never take the risk. So now he sat in a world of muffled, incomprehensible noises, and shunned contact with everyone but his sister.
Then beyond Houseboat Bay there was that tall headland – the Peak in Darien as she’d christened it so long ago. High, fir-crowned, standing out defiantly into the deep water: the place from which they had first seen the Lake – really seen it, known it for what it was – the inland sea that awaited them, the first white men to set foot on its far distant shores. It was a place of discovery to them all, the very earliest beginnings of the best years of their lives: it stood there still, one of the few unchanged places Mavis could see, now hiding the place of warmth and welcome that Holly Howe had once been. Once. In a former life. In a life before war swept all her joy and happiness away.
Mavis turned away from Darien and all the family memories that went with it. She turned to a place of desolation: somewhere that seemed more fitting to her current state. Cormorant Island was there, across by the other shore, away over the width of the grey, choppy waves. That one long-dead tree, still standing, the other long-fallen tree, decaying more each year as it lay broken across the rocks. The rocks! The rocks that had hidden Captain Flint’s old cabin trunk, with the book he’d written, that she and Roger had found for him after the burglars had taken it
Roger! Her cheeky, irrepressible, irreverent younger brother. The one with whom she had shared so many of their childhood adventures. The one who had discovered the gold, except it was copper. The one who had attempted to rescue them, when their combined efforts to save Dick’s Diver seemed to be falling in tatters around their ears. The one who had found such delight in helping develop the marine engines he’d always loved, but who had been killed when the boat he was helping on, serving as the engine performance observer, struck a newly sown, un-marked mine out on the Solent. He was gone too, as were so many, many others.
Mavis looked along the far shore, scanning slowly to the left, to port, until her eyes rested on the half-hidden entrance of Horseshoe Cove. Horseshoe Cove, with the Pike Rock standing guard just outside. Where John had so sadly sunk the Swallow. Oh if only the sinking of all boats had been as minor an occurrence as that! A bump on a rock. Two planks stove in. The four of them swimming ashore – and her greatest struggle simply to keep the precious telescope dry as she went. Nancy and Peggy there to help. The team-work involved in raising the boat from the lake bed, and the almost triumphant sailing of her across to Rio to be mended.
John had not been able to swim ashore from the next boat that sank beneath him. No one could – not in the freezing waters of the Northern Atlantic. In those chill waters hypothermia awaited, and death came in a matter of minutes. So John had perished, along with nearly all of his men. Three survivors, from a crew of over a hundred. Another statistic: another loss of war. Her best and biggest brother, the man she had always admired and looked up to – dead, lost at sea, drowned in the northern wastes, one hundred and fifty miles south of Iceland.
He would never have a marked grave, never lie under a granite headstone. The sea, that wild, untameable, powerful sea, that he’d loved since early childhood – that was all the grave he would ever have. Davy Jones stalked the Convoys as well as the German U-Boats, and John had sailed those waters one time too many to keep out of their deadly clutches.
Peggy had taken his death so hard – losing John and then losing Nancy, both so close together. Peggy had shut herself up in Beckfoot and saw none of them now – her grief-stricken mind now dominated by the long-suppressed bitterness that went back to Susan’s unwarranted outburst on the train, that awful day so many years before. Peggy had been engaged for less than a month, and married for just three weeks. The hope that propelled them both through the delightful hurry of preparations, helped and encouraged on their helter-skelter way by both their forgiving and understanding families – it had all had been shattered when, in a single day, she heard her new husband was dead, and her hopes had been built on a phantom pregnancy.
Beckfoot was out of sight from the Island, and it might as well have been on the other side of the world. Mavis knew she would never be welcome there: even though she alone remained from John’s family, even though she knew and understood the losses Peggy must feel, she would still never be welcome. The griefs she and Peggy both bore ran too deep, and the gulf between them was too great to bridge.
John lost at sea, leaving a grieving widow.
Roger blown up in the Solent.
Richard killed by a stray bomb.
And then Susan: Susan, the capable, caring, organising one, who by her essential presence had helped make their childhood adventures possible. Susan who became a nurse, because what else could she ever become? Susan who trained at Ipswich, then willingly accepted a transfer to Warwick, thinking it would take her further from the bombing dangers of the East Coast.
Susan who volunteered to go on the ambulance to Coventry, to help give the vital first aid that was needed before some casualties from the devastation could be transported to Warwick. Susan who stayed there to the end, always helping, always willing – and was crushed when a bomb-damaged building collapsed onto the first aid post she still manned. By then it was the rescuer’s wounds she bound up: the cuts and bruises borne by the willing army of labourers who dug, with bare hands sometimes, to try and find those who had been buried.
While there was a need she stayed at her post, sleep deprived, swaying on her feet, driven by that need to provide help and succour. Nurse Susan with the disinfectant and bandages: Naffi Susie with the thick, strong char and the constant supply of wads. They stayed, together. They helped, together. They died together too: it was two crushed and lifeless bodies the newly bandaged and fed workmen dug out from that hideous pile of shattered brick.
Mavis had always known her Father’s life was at risk: fighting both Japanese and German forces in the Indian Ocean simply doubled the danger. Twice he had survived viscous attacks: watched bombs and shells narrowly miss, watched the ships around him being sunk, and done all he could to rescue survivors while still under fire. It was true that those sub-tropical waters did not kill by their cold, but the sharks that swam in them were at least as deadly, especially to the wounded and those who could not help themselves.
But then that shell had come whistling in and struck the ship’s bridge, exploding scant yards away from him. Shards of shrapnel and lengths of twisted steel flying all around. Half his leg muscle cut away – and his belly split open. His life ebbed across the deck in a crimson tide, and he was gone before anyone could help him.
Bridget had still been at home with their Mother, living at Shotley, desperately trying to finish her education so she could join the WRNS. They had only been taking a stroll together, the two of them walking along the beach below Shotley Marshes. They were only enjoying the day together, watching the fitful gleams of spring sunshine that escaped through the low cloud – but the Messershmitt that crept in using those clouds as cover fired a long burst of tracer at them, and they died in each other’s arms, together on the red-stained sands.
They were all gone. Her whole family. Richard had but been the last.
How was a brief holiday at the Lake going to help her get over that? How could anyone ever recover from devastating loss after devastating loss, such as she had suffered?
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Mavis sat silently on the fallen tree: once it had been the Lighthouse Tree, the tree up which she had hauled the lantern, having manned the Island in delightful, solitary splendour all day long, while the others went to capture the Amazon – the boat that she had herself captured when their expedition seemed doomed to failure.
The tears rolled down her face once more.
Tears of grief, of loss, of loneliness.
Aloneness and silence she could find in the Island, her Island: quietness without . . . . but no solace within. That would never be found, not anywhere.
She was alive, but only inasmuch as that she was not dead: alive on the outside, but only on the outside. Not within. Alive, but only because her grief had not yet actually killed her.
The inside was a different matter. There, she was already dead – another victim of war, another statistic.
The tears ran down her face, and she made no effort to stop them.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Mavis!” a soft and gentle voice penetrated her grief. “Mavis my love! Titty my dear one.”
Mavis ignored it. She was alone here, alone in her grief.
There was no one else on the Island. There never was. No one ever came here any more. Only her.
It was her place, her secret place, where she lived with her grief.
“Mavis!” the soft voice came again. “Mavis my love! Titty my dear one. You’ve been dreaming again my love. Come back to me! Wake up now my love: wake up!”
Mavis turned away from the quietly insistent voice, lost in the dregs of her bitterness. What else could there possibly be, other than the heartache she felt? What life was there without it? It filled the very heavens!
What else was there worth looking at, worth living for? Here, on the Island, on Wild Cat Island: here she knew where she was. Here, surrounded by memories – yes, even surrounded by deeply painful memories – here, she knew, she understood, and through her tears she accepted.
“Mavis!” the soft voice came a third time. “Oh Mavis my love! Titty my dearest wife. You’ve been dreaming again. Oh my love – come back to me! Wake up now darling! Please! It’s not real: it’s a dream. You’re here now, I’m here.
“We’re staying at Beckfoot: John and Peggy are just next door. Eddie and Lillian are asleep in the other rooms with Ruth and Douglas. Mavis! Titty my love! Wake up now dear, please. You don’t need to weep. It’s your dream again. It’s not real.”
Mavis stirred and rolled over: rolled over to find the arms she knew would be waiting for her, and in Richard’s tender embrace her tears slowly faded away.
Yes, it was the dream again. The dream that had haunted her for so many years. But it was only a dream. She did still have a family. John hadn’t been sunk. Roger hadn’t been blown up. Susan never went into Coventry. Mother and Bridget had seen the Messershmitt, but the firing was from the Spitfire that chased it, and which then shot it down over the sea.
It was a dream. It was the dream. But it was only a dream.
“Oh Dick!” she sobbed. “Oh Dick! Hold me tight! I need you so.”
Dick held her, held her tight, held her till her tears ceased and her breathing eased. There was so little he could do: he could not go into that place of sadness with her – he did not know how to.
His Titty was the one with the imagination, the vision, the ability to see all manner of things – not him. She was the one he loved, loved dearly, but she was also the one who the War still haunted, even all these years later.
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This poor account is our best effort to show how our mother suffered in secret throughout the years of her married life.
The Dream sometimes went away for months at a time, but it never, ever left her completely. Our quiet, caring Father comforted her through it, and helped her out of it, times beyond count – but while she lived they never told any of us anything of what our Mother suffered.
That was their secret: along with what they did during the war, it remained their secret. It was only after our Mother died that he felt he could at last share some of her deepest, darkest hurts.
I hope our account does justice to her memory, the memory of a strong and loving mother, who always put others first, and who never wanted anyone to be hurt, not by dreams or reality.
Nancy Blackett House