• Isobel's Story •
Swallowcliffe Hall, 1939
Isobel comes to crumbling Swallowcliffe Hall with her gas mask in 1939, to stay with her grandmother Polly. Rumours of war are everywhere and it's an anxious time, especially for Andreas, a Jewish boy Izzie meets in the village. He has fled Nazi Germany on the Kindertransporte: the evacuation of thousands of Jewish children to safety in Britain. He's left his family behind and now they're in terrible danger. Can Izzie help them find sanctuary at the Hall too? In the face of prejudice all around, Isobel finally uncovers the full truth behind a devastating family secret in this heart-rending story of courage, love and loss.
'As a reader, I found closure as the book drew to an end. The system that was thriving when Polly was a teenager was showing many signs of wear and tear by the time Isobel was old enough to notice them. Overall, the series was worth every minute I spent reading it. The books went by very fast and by the time I was done, I felt "haunted" by Polly, Grace and Isobel.'
Amazon US customer
'Isobel's Story' (or 'Shelter from the Storm', as it was called when it was first published in 2007) took me a long time to write. I had all sorts of ideas that didn't work out; at one point, I even had Iris from 'Polly's Story' turning up at Swallowcliffe Hall as a wealthy visitor, having escaped to America and making her fortune there! I knew the story had to take place in the 1930s and feature Polly's grand-daughter, but I didn't want to set another book in the middle of war. Eventually I decided to focus on the period leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War on 3 September (my birthday!) 1939: a time full of foreboding in Britain as everyone thought war was inevitable. Isobel is different from both Polly and Grace in that she's a rather anxious, introspective girl. (The fact that she comes to the Hall to recuperate from a serious illness might contribute towards that aspect of her personality.) Swallowcliffe Hall is a very different house from the one her grandmother Polly first saw in 1890, and its fate reflects that of many beautiful buildings that were lost in England as the fortunes of their owners declined.
Researching the book led me to find out more about Kindertransporte: the story of thousands of Jewish children who escaped from Nazi-occupied Europe and arrived in Britain alone, most of them unable to speak a word of English. (You can read more about Kindertransporte in the 'History' section of this site.) I was privileged to talk to some of the original Kinder, namely Herman Hirschberger, who so generously shared his experiences with me, and to meet the extraordinary Smith family at the Holocaust Centre, Beth Shalom, which they have established in Nottinghamshire. I'm still not sure I have the right to tackle such a sensitive subject when there are people alive today who lived through those times, and it was a difficult balance, trying to evoke the anti-Semitism which was so common in Britain then. However Lisa Vincent, another of the Kinder, was kind enough to read the story before publication and told me I had got many people's attitudes towards Jews 'exactly right', so I went ahead.
The young woman on the cover, incidentally, is my beautiful mother, photographed just after the war.
Here's an extract from 'Isobel's Story':
I felt tired and low for the rest of the journey, as though the damp fog had seeped out of the graveyard and into my heart. Perhaps that was why Swallowcliffe Hall made such an impression on me at first, looming out of the mist like Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Several windows were boarded up, and the house stared blankly down as though determined not to show any interest in our arrival. The gravel drive sweeping up to the main entrance was studded with thistles, while bright green moss carpeted a flight of stone steps leading to an overgrown lawn.
There didn’t seem to be anyone about, apart from a large black bird waddling stiff-legged over the sodden grass which took off with an irritable ‘caw’ when Mr Oakes slammed the car door shut. He lifted our suitcases down from the luggage rack and led the way through a blue-painted door at the side of the house.
‘We’ll go straight upstairs so you can rest after the journey,’ Gran told me as we followed him down the corridor inside. ‘At least you’ll have a few days to settle in before the family come back from Scotland. Your room’s next door to mine, so you won’t feel lonely, and when you’ve had a lie-down I’ll show you where everything is and tell you what’s what.’
By now we were climbing up a flight of stairs at the end of the hall. There was no carpet and they were quite steep. ‘Can you manage, Gran?’ I asked.
‘Of course I can, dear. One flight of stairs isn’t too much trouble. Mind you, I’d have a struggle getting up to the attic where we used to sleep when I was a girl - you’ll have to explore that on your own. I’ve got a lovely room now opposite the nursery, and there’s a bathroom we share with Sissy and the children. It’s all very comfortable, you’ll see.’
We had come to a bend in the staircase. A flight of three or four stairs on the right opened out into another, longer corridor with doors on each side. Mr Oakes strode off down it, deposited Gran’s case outside the first door on the right, and mine outside the next one along.
‘Thank you, Mr Oakes,’ she said. ‘And thank you again for meeting us.’
‘You’re welcome, Mrs S.’ They were the first words I’d heard him speak. ‘Miss.’ He tipped his cap and marched back down the corridor.
‘Here we are.’ Gran opened the door to my bedroom and I followed her inside with my suitcase. The room was large, with pale green walls and a swirly red carpet. There were a few pieces of furniture cast adrift in it: a chair covered in faded flowery cotton, a white enamelled bedsteads made up with sheets, blankets and an eiderdown, and an oak chest of drawers in the window alcove. It was also cold. Incredibly cold. You could see your breath in a cloud on the air.
‘Oh, that dozy Eunice! I wrote to tell her when we were coming back. She was meant to have had a fire going in here all day!’ Gran picked up the coal tongs and started struggling down on one knee by the fireplace.
‘Don’t worry,’ I said, taking the tongs out of her hand and guiding her towards the door. ‘I think I will have that rest now, if you don’t mind.’
A wave of exhaustion and homesickness had suddenly washed over me. Not bothering with the fire, when Gran had gone I kicked off my shoes and climbed into bed under the blankets and quilt in my thick tweed coat, beret and gloves. So many empty rooms in that huge house, and only one of them filled by me! I felt like the beating heart in a sleeping, frozen body. Then I fell asleep myself, and dreamed about all sorts of extraordinary things. I dreamed Mum was running after me with my gas mask, but when I opened the cardboard box it was full of wriggling worms. I dreamed Mr Oakes came to fetch me from the station in a bus, but I didn’t have any money for the fare. I dreamed I was following two girls down a country lane in summer. I called after them, and one of the girls looked back. It was Gran. ‘Have you met my friend, Iris?’ she said, but when the second girl turned around, she had no face, only two deep black holes for eyes.
This was so terrifying that I woke up with a start, bathed in a cold sweat - and knew immediately that I was not alone in the room. It was almost completely dark by now, but somebody was watching me, I felt certain. Watching and waiting. Yes! There, by the door, the blackness had puddled into a square, solid shape. The breath caught in my throat and my heart thumped so heavily it hurt my chest. Then the shape spoke.
‘Who are you?’ it said. And another voice chimed in, ‘What are you doing in our house?’
So that was how I first met Miss Nancy and Miss Julia. The family had come home unexpectedly and, down in the kitchen, my granny was having kittens because none of the beds was aired.