Every month I select one of the stories from our Itinerant Writers Club assignments to highlight on the blog. Each story must be no more than 500 words and must follow a theme. The theme for April was “a place I know well”. Here Jenny Knowles tells us about how she got stuck in the mud.
The mud held me tight. Each time I lifted my weight onto one leg I sank deeper and the leg I was trying to free was gripped harder by the ooze that filled the voids in my wellie boot. How stupid, stupid of me – racing there before the tide and leaving the mud pattens locked in the shed onshore.
It was too late in the season for hordes of visitors to Exbury Gardens. No-one would come down the path between the rhododendrons to gaze at the river. No-one would hear me call. I was stuck, and caught on the camera I had set up on the landing hard – no more commentary, just racing heart on the radio microphone.
Down river, the tide was lifting its watery mirror across the shallows. Soon it would creep around the mud-moored boats, turn them sternwards into its flow. It would swell up the channels between the clumps of samphire, and then would stand, bank to bank, throughout the long high tide, trapped in the river estuary, first by the filling and then by the emptying of the Solent. I knew this, but not until then did I know how the water seeped low under the mud and transformed it into the viscous force that hungrily tugged me into its embrace.
We had found clues of this possessive power when digging pits for mud anchors, first discovering the sole of an ancient wooden clog, size 11 at least, lost by a tall stranger, centuries ago. Another time, the bright brass of a bullet cartridge shone in the slime, reminding us of the time when the river gathered together a motley host of boats and landing craft before the great onslaught of D-Day.
Further evidence remained of the time when Exbury House was the stone frigate ‘HMS Mastodon’; a concrete ramp leading onto the mud, rusty hinges on the shed door, deep-fissured wooden fenders edging the hard, a blackthorn bent by four score winters.
One day I found a white china saucer. I turned it over and wiped my thumb across the glaze to find the words, ‘G VI R 1944’. I looked up and I swear I saw the handsome figure of Nevil Shute, tea cup lifted to his lip, eyes scanning the river. A small motor boat was held against the hard by a Wren, and its young female coxswain watched as Engineer Shute stepped into the craft. Her colleague lifted the rope from the mooring post and leaped nimbly on board. Here surely was the real Wren Janet Prentice.
Before I knew it I was writing, recruiting actors and producing the play, ‘Requiem for a Wren’. Veterans came from around the world to weep on the beach and hold their breath through the epilogue. It was for them I was stuck in the mud, recording the introduction for a video about their special day. I thanked my luck that I lived in the age of mobile phones.
About Requiem for a Wren
The southern region of the New Forest in Hampshire, England, was key in the planning for D-Day, and in the launching of huge numbers of seagoing vessels and landing craft for the assault on the French coast.
Exbury House, situated on Beaulieu River estuary, was taken over by the Navy and renamed ‘HMS Mastodon’, the ‘stone frigate’. Here, and at a large house further down the coast, the details for D-Day were drawn up. The area was closed to everyone, except the military and local residents. Secrecy was the word. Tanks, lorries and recovery vehicles filled all roads and lanes leading to the coast, leaving only enough room to run messages by bicycle. The myth was put abroad that carrots improve the eyesight (intended to stop the enemy finding out that the British had radar) and mock anti-aircraft guns were built to frighten off any wandering enemy aircraft.
As tension grew during the weeks before the invasion, an incident happened that shocked the observers and inspired Nevil Shute to write his novel ‘Requiem for a Wren’. A German Junkers plane circled the Isle of Wight and somehow survived the anti-aircraft fire. It then flew low over the Hampshire coast, where it was shot down and crashed in a field next to Exbury House. All seven crew members were killed. This was far too many crew for a Junkers on a mission; four was usual in this small bomber. No-one could account for the high number of men and mystery still surrounds the event to this day.
‘Requiem for a Wren’ is based on this and other real events witnessed by Nevil Shute at HMS Mastodon. He was taken daily onto the river by the female boat crews to work on his prototype weapons and rocket launcher. Perhaps one of the boat crew was the inspiration for the central character, Jane Prentice. Other, more tangible, reminders of this time remain; in the concrete ramps at Exbury and Lepe, in objects revealed in the mud when the tide recedes, and in the memories of those who witnessed the events of 1944.
In 2005 I wrote and produced the play ‘Requiem for a Wren’ for performance outdoors at Exbury Gardens and Lepe beach. In spite of squally rain (reminiscent of the weather before D-Day), it was fully attended, with veterans and relatives travelling here from as far away as Australia and Canada.
One dignified elderly man returned to England for the first time in 45 years. He had been a naval diver and I couldn’t help wondering if he was the true love-interest hero from the book and if he also had risked his life dismantling mines off the French coast. He sat quietly in the audience, wiping his eyes when in the battle to load the landing craft on Lepe beach, Jane Prentice’s dog is accidentally killed.
Before he left Exbury, he held my hand and thanked me for the day. It was my eyes that filled with tears.
About the author
Jenny Knowles grew up in India, where stories were part of her life: told by the barber to keep her still, by missionaries to spread ‘The Word’, and by her mother in her letters to Jenny at boarding school. At sixteen she returned to England where she eventually met her husband, Dave. He worked at Southern Television, and she soon found herself script-writing for the family video business.
She has always written and has won a couple of prizes, but her novels remain unfinished while she builds her fledgling publishing business, Little Knoll Press. She is looking for life stories, especially those linked to places and events that would otherwise be forgotten in the fast-changing world.