Time Shifts


It was a substantial modern home under rigorous demolition on national TV and, of course, in colour on my Panasonic flat screen. The collapse of a garage was in deafening stereo.
The year was 2004, exactly ten years ago. The destruction could be seen best from a helicopter above, but it seemed such a waste. It had been a fine house but as I watched, it seemed vaguely familiar. From the air the tile-less roof revealed an extensive attic. The house was surrounded by classroom blocks and playing fields, which led down to flat marshy fen land.
Then I recognized it. I had never set foot inside the school but I had been in every room in the half demolished house, years earlier, when I was a probationary teacher. The house was just outside the village of Soham, in Cambridgeshire and provided accommodation for three single probationary teachers. They were allowed the odd guest at weekends and that was why I was there. Mike, the young RE teacher, invited me over and made up the spare room in the attic. He had been a close friend at Bangor, my university. I had a car now so perhaps we could visit the fens, and Cambridge.

The demolition ball smashed into the front door in deafening stereo.
“An end to Soham‘s nightmare,” intoned the Sky newscaster.
It was the beginning of mine. My previous lack of interest in the news meant I was possibly the only person in the country not to know very many details of the murders, as the porch collapsed on screen.

The last time I stood in the porch was on the final day of term, in 1969. My school had broken up and I had driven over in my olive green Morris 1000. The school in Soham, however, held an end of term disco for the seniors. That night, after the music ceased, a couple of girls wearing bright red fluorescent jumpers came to our house. They tackled Pierre by the front door.
“Can we phone home for a lift?”
“At this time of night!” replied Pierre irritably. “Phone quickly and then wait by the gate for your lift.”
“Can we use your bathroom?’
“If you hurry,” said Pierre doubtfully. “I don’t want to be in trouble with the warden.”
“I’ve left the bathroom in a mess!” I muttered guiltily. “I trimmed my beard in there, oh well, never mind.”
One girl snatched up the hall phone and the other hurled herself up the stairs. I felt as uneasy as Pierre about opening the place up at midnight and was relieved when a car pulled up to collect both the students.
“We have done our duty,” said Pierre, switching off the lights. “Isn’t it relaxing and quiet now all the students are home and the classrooms empty?”
“This castle hath a pleasant air,” I yelled.
“Macbeth!” said Pierre. “I know it. I feel sorry for King Duncan. He didn’t know the place was, in reality, hell.”

I watched the heavy plant with the claw wrench the stairs and demolish the bathroom wall. It was the bathroom where the children died and in which I had trimmed my beard.
I remember asking Pierre whether he intended to stay in Soham after he had completed his probationary year.
“No,” replied Pierre. “Nothing happens in Soham and never will. They are sleepwalking bog people.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “Don’t say that in their hearing, even if it’s true.”
“Do you know two youths stole from the church poor box?”
“Sacrilege!” I cried.
“These medieval fen folk made them outcasts till they were too miserable to stay in town and went away. They were both sixteen.”
“It wasn’t very nice of them,” I said grimly. “They would be made sorry in the Isle of Man.”
“It was the crime of the century to these backward, interbred, bog people. Something has to happen to bring sleepy Soham into modern times. They need a jolt.”

“Not a jolt like this one!” I whispered to the newsreader on T.V.
It wasn’t only the people of Soham that walked with ghosts. I was haunted too. The time has been that when the brains were out the man would die. Why was I thinking of that unhallowed pair of Shakespearean regicides steeped with innocent blood that could not be washed away, and at the same time remembering two modern child killers?
The townsfolk had ruthlessly exorcised evil in the past but their defences had now been breached. The ancient Fenlands now had a monster. Would the mere demolition of the house keep it at bay? Of course it wouldn’t. It would be remembered till the end of time.
The teacher’s house had become a caretaker’s home in the late twentieth century. One evening, two girls had come to the school-house dressed in red football shirts. It was a detail, the red tops in both cases, a coincidence that troubled me. Unlike Pierre though, the caretaker had welcomed children into the house. They had entered willingly for he was popular with some of the children. The horror began when he took these two students to the very bathroom where in happier days I had pruned my beard.
I turned the set off and decided to contact Pierre using the internet and Friends Reunited. I would tell him that that our community school house had become the venue for one of the most appalling, revolting child killings in modern times
By the pricking of my thumbs something wicked this way comes. I must try to exorcise such thoughts. If only I could.

  • (Footnote: There can be few people who don’t know about the 2002 Soham murders in which Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman were murdered in the bath by the school caretaker, Ian Huntley. The murders devastated so many lives and the tragic community insisted that the hateful house was torn down to prevent sad memories. The killer was sentenced to life imprisonment and his female accomplice, Maxine Carr, who was equally loathed, also served a prison sentence.)


VISITING NANA by Liz Eastham

We'd been in the car for hours. The A1 seemed endless. I was fooled by the sign announcing we were at Scotch Corner.
“We're there” I cried excitedly. “In Bonny Scotland!”
“No we're not,” my father said. Another three hours stretched ahead.
“Well why is it called Scotch Corner then?”
“There's a Scotch Corner in London,” my mother said by way of explanation. “Near Harrods.”
I did not press any further. My mother was obsessed with Harrods and I was not.

After a short sleep, I woke to find we were entering Nana and Papa's street. The most wonderful street in the world. It was marked out by green metal fencing which for some unknown reason made it special. They lived in a council house, a far cry and distance from Harrods, and built of red brick, separated from its identical neighbour by an alley leading to the garden via a green metal gate matching that of its neighbour and the fences of the street. I ran through the alley and round the path circling the rockery, like a dog checking its territory.

Nana had prepared the usual high tea. Ham, salad, hardboiled eggs and chips, served on willow pattern plates. We squeezed round the table. I always sat in the corner near the dresser, which was blue with glass panels in the top, and a fold down formica worktop, and where the chocolate biscuits lived, varieties not available in England: Toffee Yo-Yo in red wrappers, Blue Riband, Tunnocks caramel wafers and Tea Cakes, yellow and red; Gray Dunn's caramel wafers which Mum thought superior.

After tea we sat in the lounge by the fire. There was a metal stand from which hung a round thick brush with a thistle on the end, and a small shovel. I always swept the grate even though it wasn't needed.
“Well then, who's a tidy wee lassie!” Nana said. My mother rolled her eyes. Nana and I were president of each other's fan club. We both loved these Easter visits more than anyone else.

On Easter Sunday papa gave me a present, a new doll. She had black hair and wore a yellow raincoat with a black criss-cross pattern. Inside each pocket was a miniature Cadbury's Dairy Milk, fitting so perfectly the coat could have been made for them.
“I'm going to call her Barbara,” I declared. “After Aunty Barbara.” This amused my mother as Aunty Barbara was a somewhat distant great aunt and it was surprising that I remembered her.

I remembered everything about visiting Nana, the tearful goodbyes, Nana hiding the car keys in her hanky which she waved after being rumbled, standing in the street as we drove off. In years to come I would go up by train, crying all the way back to Euston as she waved me off, hoping each visit wouldn't be the last.

Her grave sits next to Papa's. Now the earth is newly dug to accommodate their son, my uncle. I stand looking down at the coffin, and then across to the windswept Cheviot hills below. This is a great place to end your days, especially if you are a local, a Scot, proud of your land, near the English border, fought over for centuries. Now this peaceful place has been invaded by an unexpected far off neighbour, the American dead. I looked across to the large white monument, out of place here amongst the grey granite of my countrypeople, the names unfamiliar except for a few possible descendants.

I recall that day ten years before, those fearful minutes, the engaged telephone line, anxious to get through. I turned on the television that morning, which I rarely do, to discover a shocking event, what was to be forever known as The Lockerbie Disaster. My uncle was the nearest relative to fear for. We were all lucky. None of our relatives, distant or far, had perished. They suffered though, the shock of the loss of their friends, neighbours and community, torn apart initially by grief and then by greed as the money rolled in.

The plane landed beyond the garden of my great aunt, who lived into her nineties and survived this, and the war. The bodies were dispersed across the town, people in plane seats were found in upstairs bedrooms. The living followed, American visitors, claiming what was left of their dead.

My uncle told me the town was never the same again but, for me nothing could tarnish the perfect image I retain from the days of visiting Nana. The childhood days, of chocolate biscuits, Scotch pancakes and Scotch pies, Scotch Corner on the way, tearful goodbyes as we left until next year.

Then the days when I was a young woman, free to visit whenever I could, crying on the train back to Euston, Nana a small figure on the platform waving her hanky.

Now to the future, I am to take a journey further back in time, beyond his passing, beyond the disaster, beyond my last visit to Nana, beyond my first, to search for my ancestors in this land I call home.



Peter’s clogs clacked on the smooth limestone rock forming the path up to the top of the fell. He had left home an hour before and had got into a rhythm of walking that matched the clicking of his knitting needles. His roughened hands snagged the homespun wool. By using a knitting stick attached to his belt he had one hand free and with this he pulled his grey worsted jacket closer to him. The wind searched his clothes for any little pockets of warmth still remaining. Peter was thankful that Jane had given him a hot breakfast before dawn that morning before setting out.
He smiled to himself as he remembered the hour he had spent in the Miners Arms last night. Relishing a pint of ale with neighbours from the village and talking of Ned’s new bull terrier that was going in the pit the following weekend.

‘He’ll see off any dog in Wensleydale,’ Ned had boasted and Peter wondered if he should risk a wager. He had slipped a few pence into Ned’s hand and shaken on it. Jane couldn’t be cross when he took home his winnings.
Thinking of Jane with her cheeky smile cheered him up. He had married her when she was 25 and a well-rounded dairymaid in Grinton. He had taken to waiting for her by the milking parlour and carrying her pails into the dairy. Having five children had thickened her waist but she was still a bonnie lass. He didn’t have to get rough with her like some men he knew, when the liquor loosed their fists.
Grinton - even the name sounded hard - flint - skint. It was where he was born and raised but he favoured the fertile pasturelands around Aysgarth in the next dale. Jane was from Aysgarth and they had moved there when they married. She had family there which was important for a woman.

They had managed to buy an acre of land just outside the village. Their two pigs shared the space with chickens and geese. If things improved they planned to get a couple of dairy cows. Jane tended a patch of land near the cottage and grew potatoes and cabbage. On a Sunday he would go to Sykes Wood with Jess, his collie and lay a few traps.
‘You’d better watch old Parson Metcalfe don’t catch you, killing on the Lord’s Day,’ scolded Jane, but soon relented when there was a pair of fresh rabbits on the table.

His clogs started to crunch on gravel; he was nearing the spoil heaps around the mines where his mother worked. The wind had dropped and low cloud was forming. The mist was wetting his face and he wiped his stubbly chin with his hand. It was difficult to pick out the paths and landmarks but he wasn’t concerned. Ten years up here on the high top searching for new seams of lead to work meant he could walk it blindfolded.
Winters filled him with dread. Snow cover made finding new workings impossible. It forced him to join the ore dressers splintering stone with small hammers and picking out the glossy mineral by hand. It was women’s work and dusty but the pay was better than nothing.

He couldn’t believe his luck finding that new seam two years ago. He had quickly gone down to the Hall to agree a bargain with the landowner on mining rights. It felt good working for himself and his family. Providing for them kept him going, in all weathers, prising the rock from the ground. He had taken the older girls out of school to help with carting the ore to the smelter. But it had paid off and now they had land. He missed his eldest daughter now she was housemaid at the Hall, but there was no other way.

It was on these long walks up the fell that he wished he had Jess with him. But it wasn’t fair on the dog to be sitting around for hours on end while he worked. He worked the final rows of the knitting. The mist was like a screen around him but he didn’t need to be able to see far. He could hear the water travelling down the leat to the wheel and smell the pungent smoke from the smelter chimneys.

As he got closer he put the knitting away in his deep pocket and dried his face on a rag. He followed the sound of hammers and shovels over to his right. There on the ground were three dust-covered boys with cloths over their mouths breaking up the stones. To one side was an old woman stirring a large separation tub of small pieces of mixed ore and water with a heavy stick. He went over and playfully grabbed the stick from her. She spun round crossly and peered hazily into his face.

It only took a moment for her to recognise her elder son, more by his laugh than his features. Her hands went to his face and understood each line and furrow. They were the same that had appeared on her own face many years ago.

Peter let her touch him and then led her over to a stone bench. He made a pretence of dusting it off so she could sit down. Elinor protested but he knew she was secretly pleased with the attention. He remembered it was a long time since a man had been kind to her. Twice in her life she had let a man use her and each time he had disappeared for good.

He rummaged in his pocket and pulled out something clenched in his fist. He pressed the knitted stockings into her hand. She felt them over approvingly. Her weathered old face lit up and her clouded eyes were full to overflowing. A light rain started to fall. She moved to get up but he caught her arm and pulled her back down to him. He slipped his arm around her bony shoulder and she leaned her head into him for a lifetime.