I returned to the house, which I thought of as a house and not a hotel. The stairway in the entry hall was stately, with landings and a banister, delivering you in a spacious foyer. You could imagine the daughter of the house skipping down the stairs holding a wide-brimmed hat, set to embark on a wholesome adventure—a church picnic, or a drive to the sea with a favorite bachelor uncle. I pictured Sally Ann Howes, who played the daughter of the house in a spooky British film called Dead of Night, in which a group of people at an English country house frighten each other by telling tales of the supernatural, which are then depicted.
When Sally Ann Howes and her bouncing blonde curls enters the drawing room (after one or two tales have been told), several of the adults in the room cry “Sally!” (her character’s name is also Sally) as though now that she has arrived, the real action can take off. The story Sally/Sally tells is pretty generic, a standard why-no-one’s-been-in-that-nursery-since-the-young-Master-was-murdered-there! bit of business. The real star turn of Dead of Night is Michael Redgrave playing a ventriloquist driven insane by his dummy, Hugo.
(And good news, you can watch the whole thing on YouTube
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8UCJz617E8s right now, or when you’re finished reading this.)
I didn’t know, seeing this movie as a child, that Sally Ann Howes was the child of one of those British acting dynasties that populates stage and screen for generations. I only knew that she grew up to play Truly Scrumptious in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a film based on a book by Ian Fleming, who makes no appearance in my novel but who was inspired by the floor to ceiling fish tank in the Gazebo Bar of the Princess Hotel (where much of my novel takes place) to include a similar feature of architecture in one of his novels—Doctor No, perhaps?
The screenplay to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was co-written by Roald Dahl, whose memoirs of his time with the RAF in North Africa, Going Solo, I had purchased only days before in the gift shop at the Imperial War Museum and which was in my suitcase in the room upstairs to which I was clearly not ready to return since my mind was forming sentences as labyrinthian as this one.
I went to the bar.
The bar was a small room behind the check-in desk. It was manned by Matthew, who had poured my morning coffee, checked me in the day before, carried my bag upstairs, listened sympathetically to my description of the witch who dissed my push-pin art and now poured me a chardonnay. There were two couples in the bar: an older woman and her elderly mother, and s heavy lorry driver and his wife.
The elderly mother fascinated me because although she was obviously quite old, she still carried an ample amount of flesh quite comfortably, oddly fit with it, like a stocky athlete.
I sipped my wine and listened to them discuss roundabouts, motorways, and dreadful accidents, until the mother and daughter said goodnight. Heavy Lorry Drive and his wife turned to me, eager to continue to chat, belying so much of what I had always believed about British reserve. After a few exchanges of the basic, visiting from where and how long and why, Heavy Lorry Driver told me, “That woman was an evacuee here during the war.”
So the impression I had carried all this while of a benevolent haunting at the Ebury Hotel made sense. I don’t believe in that sort of thing, but I accepted that it made sense. And yet, it didn’t.
“She says the house was full of soldiers.”
Canterbury is an hour’s drive from Dover. I’d noticed the motorway signs on the roundabout above the pedestrian underpass that led into the city proper. Why would the Brits evacuate children closer to the invasion point, and more directly under the flight path of the Luftwaffe heading for London?
I chose not to challenge Heavy Lorry Driver. It was not his story and not his claim. Instead, the wine I had drunk and the time I’d spent alone propelled me into telling him and his wife about my novel. They hummed and clucked in a gratifying manner. We talked about the war in general, and our visits to the Imperial War Museum, and then we said goodnight.
The next morning, as Matthew took my breakfast order, I kept a gimlet eye on Evacuee and her daughter, trying to think of a tactful way to approach her and demand her personal history while she buttered her toast. As it turned out, she found me. When I returned from a stroll in the charming and green back garden of the house (everything in Kent is charming and green), the Heavy Lorry Driver’s wife bid me farewell in the bar. The Evacuee, sitting in the bar with her daughter, said to me, “You were here last night, weren’t you?” I wasted no further time.
Her father had been garrisoned in a town nearby and she and her mother moved into one of the apartments around the house to be closer to him. She was not part of the official UK evacuation program, known as Operation Pied Piper (subtle, UK). The house was indeed full of soldiers. Mr. and Mrs. Clare, the owners, whom she spoke of as though they had just left for the market, tasked her with looking after their two young sons, one three years old, one an infant. Evacuee herself was “five when the war began, and ten when it ended.”
She used to take the Clare boys into town. “It was a different time,” she added, as though the past were charming and green and not, say, World War II.
I thought her mother a bloody fool dragging her daughter deeper into harm, and the Clares even worse. Canterbury was badly hit during the war. According to Kent Online, 800 buildings were destroyed in the June 1942 Baedeker raid, and 43 people lost their lives. (A photograph of the monument to the Baedeker raid is displayed in an earlier post.)
They would have been better off in the Highlands, or Wales. But I suppose they were all just keeping calm and carrying on, allowing a six-year-old girl to push a pram a mile to the market town, with a three-year-old in tow. And here she was now, a coincidence, she said; her daughter just picked the place at random for their holiday. I guess they stayed in Kent after the war. Who could blame them. I wanted to stay in Kent forever. However, it was my last day in England. I had one last visit to make, to the Cathedral.