In October 1943, when prisoners of war Alfie and Frank escape from a train taking them to Germany, their lives depend on the family of shepherds who shelter them. In constant jeopardy, the young men wait out the winter in the Italian mountains.In 2000, Ros Goudy inherits her music teacher’s home in Exeter and there she finds letters that reveal the soldiers’ fate. Only one made it back, but it wasn’t to a warm welcome and happy ever after. What had happened that turned heads and hearts against him? The trail she follows begins with an charming comic song composed before the war. What she discovers is that everyone, including herself, has something to hide
1 The Italian Apennines, 1943
‘Get your kit, Alfie.’
Frank’s voice hisses in the dark, so close I can feel the heat of his breath on my ear.
Goodbye dreams of singing to my darling Dottie at Covent Garden. While I’ve been having forty winks, he’s done it. Smashed through the bolt with the smuggled pickaxe. I go to stand, but the swaying and juddering of the cattle truck is so violent, we end up half crawling and half thrown towards the open door.
Cold mountain air rips into every corner and down all the crevices between cloth and skin. Marvellous. I want to jump now, but the train’s going too fast. What’s the use of a broken neck? We’re in trees here, but the line of the ridge is visible ahead. I see it for a moment, before clouds smudge the bright moon. The air is fresh, but there’s something else that raises the hairs on my arms.
Out there, the big outdoors, forest, mountain, the inky sky of a million stars, it all means one thing – freedom. At last, at long, long last.
Frank’s on look out. He’s the best of us four here. My school chum, a big man now, surprising seeing as how Dottie’s so slight. Siblings mostly look alike but not those two, although when they’re smiling you can see it. Trustworthy, quiet, Frank has a steady hand and enough grit to deal with mines. The train slows. Yes? If it’s a bend, we’ll go. Frank tenses, and so do I. Is this it? Is it? But instead of jumping he pushes me back.
‘Wait,’ he says. ‘Lights.’
The train slows even more. Yes, lights and a bloomin’ station. Frank’s pulling on the door trying to close it, grunting with the effort.
The wagon jolts and we nearly catapult outside there and then. We hang on to each other, then crouch on our knees. There’s something in the door runner. It feels like lumpy sand, breaking into ever-smaller pieces when you get hold of it.
‘Bloody Jerry biscuits!’
Of course, Frank’s right. Before we left Sulmona, a handful had been thrown in. Our rations for the journey to Germany. We scrape at it like madmen.
Behind us, Ted and Stan are quiet, but pushing the door with all their might. It jerks forward a couple of inches, but still won’t close. If it’s seen open, we’re done for.
The end of the platform goes by. Flashes strafe us: light, dark, light, then mercifully darkness again. We lie flat as the train whines to a halt. Over the distant engine rumble, I can hear voices further down the platform. Is this an inspection? A signal stop? This isn’t a passenger train. Nobody boards by choice.
I close my eyes, and should pray but, when an owl hoots high in the trees, all I can think of is that poem we had to learn at school, about stopping at a station in the middle of nowhere and hearing all the birds of England. Dear God, what I’d do to be there.
Heavy boots rattle the planks of the platform. Someone’s coming.
Thank you, Cathie Hartigan and Random Things Tours
About the author
Cathie Hartigan lives in the beautiful, historic city of Exeter.
Although her professional training was in music, a decade ago she swapped one keyboard for another in order to take her life-long love of writing more seriously. Since then, she has won several prizes for her short stories and was a finalist in the annual Woman and Home short story competition three times.
Cathie lectured in creative writing for nine years at Exeter College before leaving to found CreativeWritingMatters.co.uk, which offers a range of writing services and administers four international literary competitions a year, including The Exeter Novel Prize and The Trisha Ashley Award.
When not writing, Cathie sings in a small vocal ensemble. The beautiful Devon coastline also provides plenty of distraction but on a rainy day if there’s an opera or theatre screening at the cinema, she’ll be there.