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"Sarah Waters meets Daphne du Maurier" (Harper's Bazaar UK) in this suspenseful novel of repressed passion and WWII tragedy
At the beginning of World War II, twelve-year-old Nora Lynch is one of thousands of London children sent away to the safety of the English countryside. Her surrogate family, Reverend and Mrs. Rivers and their daughter Grace, are like no-one she has ever met, offering shelter, affection, and the sister she never had. But Nora is too young and too naïve to understand the cracks beneath the surface of her idyllic new life at the rectory, or the disappointments of the Riverses' marriage. And as her friendship with Grace grows more intense, she aches to become even closer. What happens next is a secret that she keeps for more than fifty years, a secret that she can begin to reveal only when, elderly and alone, Nora knows that she is close to the end.
Catherine Hall was born in the Lake District in 1973. Now based in London, she worked in documentary film production before becoming a freelance writer and editor for a range of organizations specializing in human rights and development. This is her first novel.
When we got there it was crowded but strangely quiet. Some of the little ones were crying, clinging to their mothers, and a few of the bigger boys ran about, pretending to shoot at each other like soldiers. But most of us were silent and still, waiting to see what was going to happen. I knew that nothing I said or did would change anything. I couldn't stop the war. I couldn't even make Ma change her mind about sending me away. I didn't know where I was going, where I would sleep that night or where I would wake up in the morning. All I knew was that Ma wouldn't be there with me. I swallowed hard, trying to force back the panic that was rising in my throat. When a whistle screeched and a teacher clapped her hands to make us listen, I thought I was going to be sick. A hush fell over the schoolyard.
'Say goodbye to your mothers and line up in pairs,' the teacher shouted. 'Quickly, now. We've no time to lose.'
Suddenly everything was movement and noise.
I tried one last time. 'I want to stay here and be killed with you.' Ma shook her head sadly.
'Don't say things like that. It's not right.'
She pressed something into my hand. It was the little picture of the Virgin and Child that hung from a hook on the wall next to our bed. I saw it every night before I went to sleep. I liked how they were together, the two of them, just like me and Ma. She put her arms around me and held me tight, pressing her cheek against mine.
'Remember, Nora, I'll always be with you,' she said quietly. 'We'll always be together.'
I closed my eyes and breathed in her smell, carbolic soap and sweat, filling my nose with it to take with me to wherever I'd end up.
The next thing I knew, she was gone and I was holding the hand of a boy who was smaller than me, aged five or maybe six. Two lines of snot trickled towards his mouth, making me feel even sicker. I couldn't bear to look at him. I stared instead at the label that hung from a piece of string around my neck. Nora Lynch, it said, in tidy teachers' handwriting. Aged 12 years. It reminded me of the words on Pa's gravestone. James Lynch. Died 1929, aged 25 years. It made leaving Ma even worse and I hated her for making me go. I wouldn't turn my head to look at her as we marched out of the schoolyard in a crocodile. We shuffled like prisoners, our heads down, staring at the ground, and even the birds were quiet as we went. […]
[Once we arrived] We were taken to a place that smelled of animals, and was divided by wooden fences into pens. I sat on the ground in the dust, feeling numb, watching the teachers try to calm the little ones. Women dressed in hats and suits like the ladies that Ma cleaned for were giving out glasses of lemonade and cups of tea. I had never seen a lady make a cup of tea. It was as if everything I knew to be true had changed in the time that it had taken to leave London. I drew my knees up to my chest and rested my head on them, closing my eyes and wishing that Ma was there to tell me what to do. I stayed like that for a while, shutting everything out, drifting in and out of sleep, until I heard a girl's voice, high-pitched and clear.
'Mummy, look! Look at that girl, there, in the corner. Don't you think she looks like me?'
All I wanted was to keep my eyes closed and pretend I was back with Ma, but the voice went on calling.
'Please, Mummy. Can't we have her? We could be friends, I know we could. Please.'
I tried to melt into the fencepost that I was leaning against, to make myself invisible, but her voice grew closer and louder until at last I could feel her standing in front of me and I had no choice but to open my eyes.
I didn't think I looked like her at all. She was a girl out of a picture book. Her eyes were blue and her cheeks pink, as if someone had coloured them in with a pencil, and her pale hair hung to her shoulders. She wore a flowered dress and brown leather sandals that had just been polished. Mine were still damp from the lavatory. I tried to tuck them underneath me.
'Hello,' she said. She was smiling. Her teeth were very white. I stared at the ground, feeling dirty and shy.
'My name's Grace. What's yours?'
'Nora,' I said.
'Nora.' It sounded different when she said it, as if it could even be pretty. 'Nora what?'
'Nora Lynch,' I said, still looking at the ground.
'How old are you?'
I wasn't used to questions. 'Twelve.'
'When will you be thirteen?'
'In a month. October the fifth.'
The girl let out a little shriek. 'My birthday's October the tenth. We're almost exactly the same age. Please come to stay. You must! Please say you will.'
I raised my head and we looked at each other. She smiled at me again, a wide smile as if she thought me coming to stay was something thrilling. I couldn't help but smile back.
The lady who was standing next to her spoke, her voice soft and low. 'Hello Nora,' she said. 'I'm Mrs Rivers, Grace's mother.'
Everything about her was nice to look at. She wore a pale blue coat like the Virgin Mary in the picture that Ma had given me and her eyes were kind. 'Would you like to come and stay with us for a while?' Mrs Rivers asked. 'We're to take in an evacuee.'
Grace grinned at me again. 'Of course she will!' she said. She picked up my pillowcase in one hand and my gasmask in the other and there it was, decided, just like that.
from Days of Grace