The idea for The Girl on the Beach came from something that happened to my husband in the second world war.
Crossing a ditch in Germany in 1944 he jumped on a mine and, according to witnesses, was blown sky high. He woke up in hospital in England with traumatic loss of memory. Luckily for him it came back after a few days but the story remained in my subconscious until I needed it.
I imagine losing one’s memory must be hard to accept; you would worry at it all the time, trying to bring it back and wondering if images that suddenly come into your head are real memories.
My heroine’s life is a mystery from the first. As a tiny baby she is found on the doorstep of the Foundling Hospital in London on a Monday in July 1918 with a note pinned to her clothing. ‘Husband killed in France. Can’t cope no more.’ She is given the name of Julie Monday and grows up in the orphanage.
When she meets and marries Harry Walker in 1938 and they have a son, George, her happiness is complete but for shadow of war hanging over everyone. At the outbreak of war, Harry joins the RAF and is sent to Canada for training. Julie is left to cope alone.
When the siren sounds for the first big raid of the London blitz, Julie is ushered into a shelter which receives a direct hit. Pulled out alive she is taken to hospital, but she cannot tell them who she is, where she lives or even if she has a family. Given a new identity, she must make a life for herself as Eve Seaton, and Harry, who believes his wife and child have been killed, must put his grief behind him and get on with his part in the war as a radio operator in a bomber crew.
When Julie’s memory does return four years later in equally traumatic circumstances, Julie is left with a dilemma. Is she Julie Walker married to Harry or is she Eve Seaton engaged to Alec Kilby? Where is Harry? And who is buried in the grave alongside her son?
Although I vividly remember the blackout and the blitz, the rationing and shortages, the long queues and the black market, I still had lots of research to do. Crucially for my story I discovered that it is a myth that loss of memory caused by a blow on the head would be cured by another blow, that most likely scenario for the return of memory would be if the person concerned was put in a similar situation to the one that caused the loss in the first place. I could call on my husband’s experiences in the Parachute Regiment for Alec Kilby’s role, but I needed to find out about the WAAF and the jobs they might be asked to do, about Bomber Command and factory work, though here again I could call on memory.
My father was production manager of a factory making radio parts and sometimes he would work on a Sunday and take me with him. All this delving into the past was great fun but there comes a time when you have to stop the research and write the book but before I could do that I needed a chronology of events, both real and fictional to make sure they bonded. And that is half the fun of writing historical novels, interweaving fact and fiction.
The young lady in the hospital bed was finally coming out of her comatose state and the nurse designated to watch over her called the ward sister. 'She's stirring, Sister. I saw her eyes flicker.'
'Good. Now perhaps we'll find out who she is.'
The patient had been dug out of the ruins of the Linsey Street shelter with a broken left arm and left leg, abrasions to her face and a bump on the head. The broken limbs had been plastered and would heal and so would the grazes, but the head injury was worrying. They did not know what to expect when she regained consciousness, if she ever did. She might be living the rest of her life as a cabbage. She had no means of identity on her when she had been brought in but that was hardly surprising, since almost everything and everyone about her had been blown to smithereens. Bags and papers had been scattered everywhere and there was no way of telling which body they belonged to, even supposing you could piece together the bodies. In any case the chaos as the ambulance crews dashed back and forth ferrying casualties meant possessions frequently became separated from their owners.
Sister stood and looked down at the still form in the bed, watching the flickering of the eyelids, waiting with a fixed smile of reassurance until the eyes opened fully. They were forget-me-not blue. 'Hallo,' she said.
'Where am I?'
'In St Olaves's hospital, Bermondsey. You were in a shelter that was bombed. Can you tell us your name?'
'It's…' She stopped suddenly and tried again. 'It's gone. My name has gone.' Tears filled her eyes. 'How can I forget my own name?'
'Easily, my dear. You have sustained a nasty bump on the head as well as the other injuries and temporary loss of memory under those circumstances is not uncommon. It will come back.'
'Do you know who I am?'
'Unfortunately, no. You were pulled out of the rubble of the shelter on Linsey Street after it was destroyed by a bomb. There was nothing on you, certainly nothing arrived here with you.'
'Yes. There's a war on and we're being bombed. Do you remember that?'
'I remember being very frightened. And noise, a lot of noise and darkness.'
'That's something, I suppose.'
'How long ago was that?'
'Over three weeks now.'
'Hasn't anyone been looking for me?'
'There have been several people looking for lost relatives who came and saw you, but unfortunately you did not belong to any of them.'
'What about other people in the shelter? Didn't any of those know me?'
'There weren't many survivors and those that did get out said you were a stranger and not one of the people who usually used that shelter. You may have just been visiting the area when the siren went. Do you remember anything about yourself?'
'I'm trying, I really am. I suppose I must have had parents, brothers and sisters, a husband even…'
'You are not wearing a wedding ring.'
She felt her wedding ring finger which was sticking out of the plaster that encased her broken arm. 'Oh, no husband then.'
'But you have given birth, though not recently.'
'I've had a child? What happened to it?'
'We don't know. There were no unidentified children in the shelter. It may have been stillborn some time ago, or it might have been adopted or put into a home, since you 're not married.'
'A home?' She was silent, struggling to recall something, anything that might help. 'That rings a bell. I seem to remember something about a home and lots of children. And the seaside. Was the home at the seaside? Oh, why can't I remember? Surely I must have loved the child. I would not have put it in a home unless there was no alternative.'
'Sometimes it's the only thing you can do, especially if the father won't face up to his responsibilities and your parents were not prepared to help.'
'That would have been cruel.'
'Yes, but some people are strict like that. Of course you may not have had parents alive. It would have been a struggle to manage in that case.'
'But I must have tried. Are you sure my memory will return?'
'That I cannot tell you. In a day or two, a week, maybe longer. The brain is a funny thing and we don't altogether understand how it works.'
'What have you been calling me?'
The sister smiled. 'C10. It's the number above your bed.'
'What will happen to me now? Where will I go? I can't even remember where I live.' The blankness of her mind was worrying, but it wasn't exactly blank; her brain was going round and round trying to grasp at something, anything, to tell her who she was and where she came from.
'You will have to stay in hospital until your plaster comes off and then you will need exercises to get your muscles working again. If you still cannot remember after that, you will be re-homed, but until then we are moving you to another hospital away from the bombing. We need the beds here for new casualties. With every raid there are more and more. We are rushed off our feet.'
'When will I go?'
'Tomorrow by ambulance.'
'What's the date?'
'Friday the twenty-seventh of September.'
'I shall have to remember that.'
'Oh, I think you will. It's only your past you have lost.'
Only my past, she thought as the sister left her. Her past was what made her who she was; without it she was nothing, a number. C10. What sort of person was she? How had she come to have a child and not be married? Did that mean she was wicked? Had she loved the child's father? Why hadn't they married? Was it a boy or a girl? How old would he or she be? Come to think of it, how old was she? Had she got a job, employers who might wonder why she had not reported for work? Why had no one come forward to claim her? If only someone would come she might not feel so isolated and frightened. She nagged and nagged at her memory until she was exhausted and fell asleep.
THE GIRL ON THE BEACH is out now in paperback
published by Allison and Busby
ISBN: 978 0 7490 1218 2