The day all the grown-ups lied

The time:1944 The place: St Ives, Cornwall The woman: Jill Paton Walsh, novelist
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Indy Lifestyle Online
If you're going to be a novelist, you have to be in a spectator seat. This is both necessary and a slight moral danger; if you get too separate from real life and just start to coldly observe it, that's very dangerous. I don't know where I stand on this axis of danger, but I do know what made me separate from the life around me.

This story starts with a horrible night of the Blitz, in London, when my step-grandfather, a Cornishman, was visiting. We had to go to the air- raid shelter three times in the night. We were all very young children, I was probably about five when this happened, early in 1940 I think. So the children were got out of bed and carried downstairs and dumped in the shelter and woken again to be carried back to bed. It was all rather traumatic. My step-grandfather said, you can't live like this. And in the morning, he got us all on to the Cornish Riviera, which then and now leaves Paddington at 10.30 for Penzance.

My grandmother came to the station in St Ives to meet her husband and found her entire family on the platform. I was the eldest child - I have two brothers and a sister, she was not then born - and I started at nursery school in St Ives. I did rather well and when my mother returned home, she took the youngest children with her but left me behind. I became an only child, looked after by adoring grandparents who were rather newly married. They were happy, I was happy, the view was wonderful.

I used to visit the family in London. Being a child in the war was very odd, because you didn't experience what you saw. There's a memory I have, of having looked out of my bedroom window, and there was a bomb. The window was lying on the lawn, and there were very large, broken dolls lying in the garden and the street. I now know it was the neighbours' dead bodies, but at the time I saw large broken dolls, and I cannot, even now, make myself see bodies or feel any emotion about it. Being a child in the war was very easy and unalarming compared to being an adult; I can remember observing frightened adults without understanding what made them afraid.

I can't remember the rest of the family leaving St Ives. I was being left with my adoring gran in a large, comfortable house with a spectacular view across St Ives bay to the lighthouse, and it was lovely. My grandfather was a person in the town, and he used to patronise things, he gave a cup to the regatta, the Florence Cup, called after my granny. People knew who he was, and they therefore knew who I was.

I remember the enormous emotion in the town that followed the launching of the lifeboat, which of course in the war was doubly dangerous. There was the storm, and the boat that was wrecked, and also there were mines floating in the channel. It was hideously dangerous. I can remember everyone around me watching for the boat, very tense, waiting for it to come back.

I remember William Freeman, the only survivor of one lifeboat disaster. There was a great aura of specialness about him; he would be walking around town when everybody else was in their boat, fishing. He never brought himself to go on a boat again.

There wasn't any raid on St Ives except for once, it hit the gasworks. By then, William Freeman was working at the gasworks; he took a job shovelling coal. It was bombed on a Wednesday morning, but it was his day off. It's very hard to avoid the idea that God was looking after him.

Apart from that one bomb, there was no action. There was no danger and I just innocently, perhaps rather stupidly, definitely rather stupidly, sat the war out being happy in my gran's house.

It came to an end on a day which I can see as having severed me from paradise. Everything was wonderful, I was alone and spoiled, and then my grandmother had a heart attack. She got out of the bath and fell dead of a heart attack, and I had said goodnight to her seconds before, she was just going into the bathroom.

My step-grandfather's family were in the house, and were foolish enough to tell me she was ill and sleeping and I was not to go in and disturb her. But for the whole of my time there I'd been going in first thing in the morning and been given a sugar lump dunked in her tea. So I had been in to her room and I knew she wasn't there and the bed hadn't been slept in.

I panicked. All these grown-ups were lying to me and I'd been taught that lying was very wrong. I was already a voracious reader and I'd read quite a lot about wicked step-relations, one way and another, and I was very, very frightened. I think that's the first time I was frightened, not withstanding bombs.

My mother took all day to get down there; by the time she arrived at the house it was already dark. Somebody said to me, your mother's here, and I ran into the hall, which was pitch-dark, and flung myself around the knees of the person arriving. At the same time my grandfather, who'd kept himself in bed all day long, absolutely devastated, came to the top of the stairs, switched on the light and said, "Is Patsy [my mother] here?" I began to wail at my mother and she said, "Has nobody told the child?" And the lights went on. I was hanging on to my mother, but I had forgotten her face.

I hadn't seen her for a long time. I knew she was my mother, and I knew how to react to that knowledge, but I didn't remember her to look at. I remember this tremendous sense of the world cracking apart.

I'm sure I didn't go to the funeral, and I cannot remember what anybody said next. I'd seen a lot of death of course, but of a different kind. It's an irreparable loss. It sounds ridiculous to say that at nearly 60 I miss my granny, but I do, I miss the unconditional love.

The next day I was on the train back to London, in time for the end of the doodlebugs and rationing and that bitterly cold winter. And it wasn't a reunion with the rest of the family, because my mother's family had come back from Burma and were living in our house. They were colonial expats, had been wealthy, had lost everything, and their idea of a woman was the sort of thing feminists rave about. I'd been given a very good opinion of myself, by my loving grandparents and by my father, who thought having a clever daughter was the cats' whiskers.

So I acquired this sense that St Ives is where happiness starts and clear vision and being able to be who you are. Ever since I've felt under pressure, illegitimate pressure, to be something else, not to be bookish, to be girlish, not to be full of yearning for this vanished place but to settle in with the others. "The others" are still what I call my brothers and sister, though we're very good friends now.

I did return to St Ives, I went and stayed for summer holidays with my step-grandfather and he looked after me very nicely. But he died in 1949, and I didn't go back until I was in my mid-thirties. I bought a book on Paddington station, Quentin Bell's life of Virginia Woolf, and as I rode towards St Ives I learned for the first time that To the Lighthouse is set in St Ives. To the Lighthouse was one of the great discoveries of my reading life, but I didn't realise until I was going back for the first time in all those years that it was my lighthouse. In some ways I've been wanting all my life to get back to St Ives, and we've now bought a flat there only a few yards from gran's house - it is now a hotel - and a little way down the hill. And I have the view of the lighthouse again, and I feel extraordinarily happy about that, as though something that was broken has been mended.

Any trauma has long since healed, so I don't feel pain. But I think that being moved from one family context to another when you're very young gives you a sort of cynicism about every family context. There is none that you take for granted, in fact each one you watch rather carefully, to see what it's like, before you commit yourself. I think from this mature distance I can now see that these wartime comings and goings put me in the spectator's seat, where writers are, always slightly watchful, always slightly alienated from what's going onn

Jill Paton Walsh's latest novel, `The Serpentine Cave', is published by Transworld at pounds 6.99

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