Plucky Backpackers in the Lynmouth Flood
If you read the report from 1952, they call us ‘plucky’. It’s a word the English use to describe Australians. Something to do with pioneering grit. The way we face obstacles square in the face. Stare them down like a cow cocky seeing off a tricky-minded steer. The way we face 'harsh' and the creatures who might kill us if the dry don’t get to us first.
Pluck wasn’t enough. If you read on, you’ll see it says, ‘both sucked into oblivion.' Sounds to me like pioneering of a different kind. Like heading for outer space. I can say fair and square, it’s not the adventure Gwenda and I had in mind.
We plucky girls wanted to see the old country. Our mothers, they wanted us to learn some grace and manners from home.
“Polish off the hard edges,” my Ma said.
“A diamond is still a diamond in the rough” my Da might have said but he never said much at all. ‘Na’ or ‘Yip’ is about all you could expect, but he’d narrow his eyes when Ma talked about England as home.
On the voyage over we had nothing to fear except the boredom and the seasick. Surrounded by water for weeks we became used to the moods of the sea. Colours changing from steel grey to green, to oily flattened glass and white-tipped blue. The swell and sink of the waves, shuddering humps then sulking gullies. It seems a joke now, my guts heave-ho in the massive ocean, waiting for the rest of me to come. Benign seas, stretching thousands of miles when a few twisting river streams became the striking snakes with forks in their tails.
Gwenda and I had the travel bug. We wanted to see for ourselves the green and pleasant land. The emeralds and limes. The fresh watery hope of it, so quaint and easy after cracked earth and brittle-blue mountains and silver-kindling brown gums.
We liked an oak standing in milk-rich pasture. Barrels of beeches and brambles in hedgerows and hand-built stone walls. We liked yew trees in churchyards where the gravestones of Jones’s and Smiths' leant into the grass. We liked villages with wells and thatched cottages. We liked topiary chickens and chess pieces and close mown cricket pitches and croquet lawns.
We were plucky when we stuck out our thumbs. We liked the way drivers stepped on their brakes and swerved as they turned to look at us. We jiggled on hard suspension in backfiring lorries. We sat on the fenders of a tractor towing a trailer of pigs. We took rides in cars grinding and slipping their gears and once shared a seat—Gwenda perched on my knee—in an open-top racer driven at scream-out-loud speed.
Gwenda and I were thick, though like petty thieves we scrapped over small things which don’t matter. Gwenda had an eye. She liked a tease and tickle. She said I could be hostile, off-putting with men.
“Just enjoy yourself,” she’d say. Well, she was right. If we knew what was coming, we’d all live a whole lot more. Sometimes I think I’d have done more, sooner, and faster. Sometimes I think I’d have slowed right down.
He was called Tony, the young man who gave us the last lift. Gwenda stuck out her hand, thumb pointing up and curling back like a hook. Tony was a good-looking fella. Thick black hair and straight brown eyes. I sat in the back like usual and Gwenda sat up front, a bit side-on to him as she chatted. I kept my eyes on the road—Tony, getting distracted, needed the help.
We were glad of the lift. The weather had turned, and the wind couldn’t make up its mind. Coming from this way and that like bluebottles flying in for a feed. The sky was darkening, purple bruised, and I could see it was going to rain yet again. Not the usual English dribble-and-mist but real rain. The kind that falls like a bucket tipped over your head.
Tony said it wasn’t too far though I could see he wished it was. He knew the guest house and drove us to the door. Above a river in a place called West Lyn Valley. The hills rising to the moor rolled black with the sky and the rain started to fall when we ran inside. Gwenda was laughing when she waved goodbye. Rain always made her laugh. She said she liked the wet of it and she turned her face to the sky.
The rain—it kept coming. More than a bucket over our heads. More like a dam bursting, spilling, and slicing in sheets. The trees jawed and cracked when we peered out of the windows, but we couldn’t see much. We helped to roll flour sacks at the doors to keep out the water and it's true, we plucky girls felt scared when we turned in for bed. We’d seen heavy rain before but not like this for so long. It was the sound that went with it. Like an animal’s roar. Like the roar of an animal breaking free from a trap. Or going in for the kill.
We were taken in our beds. Pencil narrow cots with pricking pillows and mean blankets. We clung to them like rafts in the crashing collapse and slide and grind and tear of tree roots and iron and bricks and glass and dark and spark of fused car lights, chair sticks and ticking and doors torn from hinges and tiles shorn in the spit and sludge and sink and slurry. And we went with it, thrown out like dirty from the floor-washing bucket to gape and bulge like bugs in the mud, bloated and floating face down out at sea.
We plucky girls were plucked from the water. Too late to bring back from the brink.
And the oblivion they talked of? I’ll tell you it has a silence of its own. As quiet as my scattered ashes in the sun-baked yellow back home.
Emily Macdonald was born in England but grew up in New Zealand.
Fascinated by wine as a student, she has worked in the UK wine trade ever since. In writing and in wines she likes variety, persistent flavour, and enough acidity to add bite.
Her published writing can be found here: https://www.macdonaldek11.com