“Now, I’d be happy to show you the rest of my collection,” he said, escorting me toward the door, “but I’m afraid it’s shutting-up time. If you’d like to come back tomorrow, however—”
“Actually, I was hoping you might know something,” I said, stopping him before he could shoo me out. “It’s about the house I mentioned this morning. I went to see it.”
“Well!” he exclaimed. “I thought I’d scared you off it. How’s our haunted mansion faring these days? Still standing?”
I assured him that it was, then got right to the point. “The people that lived there—do you have any idea what happened to them?”
“They’re dead,” he replied. “Happened a long time ago.”
I was surprised—though I probably shouldn’t have been. Miss Peregrine was old. Old people die. But that didn’t mean my search was over. “I’m looking for anyone else who might have lived there, too, not just the headmistress.”
“All dead,” he repeated. “No one’s lived there since the war.”
That took me a moment to process. “What do you mean? What war?”
“When we say ‘the war’ around here, my boy, there’s only one that we mean—the second. It was a German air raid that got ’em, if I’m not mistaken.”
“No, that can’t be right.”
He nodded. “In those days, there was an anti-aircraft gun battery at the far tip of the island, past the wood where the house is. It made Cairnholm a legitimate military target. Not that ‘legitimate’ mattered much to the Germans one way or another, mind you. Anyway, one of the bombs went off track, and, well …” He shook his head. “Nasty luck.”
“That can’t be right,” I said again, though I was starting to wonder.
“Why don’t you sit down and let me fix you some tea?” he said. “You look a bit off the mark.”
“Just feeling a little light-headed …”
He led me to a chair in his office and went to make the tea. I tried to collect my thoughts. Bombed in the war—that would certainly explain those rooms with blown-out walls. But what about the letter from Miss Peregrine—postmarked Cairnholm—sent just fifteen years ago?
Martin returned, handing me a mug. “There’s a nip of Penderyn in it,” he said. “Secret recipe, you know. Should get you sorted in no time.”
I thanked him and took a sip, realizing too late that the secret ingredient was high-test whiskey. It felt like napalm flushing down my esophagus. “It does have a certain kick,” I admitted, my face going red.
He frowned. “Reckon I ought to fetch your father.”
“No, no, I’ll be fine. But if there’s anything else you can tell me about the attack, I’d be grateful.”
Martin settled into a chair opposite me. “About that, I’m curious. You say your grandfather lived here. He never mentioned it?”
“I’m curious about that, too,” I said. “I guess it must’ve been after his time. Did it happen late in the war or early?”
“I’m ashamed to admit I don’t know. But if you’re keen, I can introduce you to someone who does—my Uncle Oggie. He’s eighty-three, lived here his whole life. Still sharp as a tack.” Martin glanced at his watch. “If we catch him before Father Ted comes on the telly, I’m sure he’d be more than happy to tell you anything you like.”
* * *
Ten minutes later Martin and I were wedged deep in an overstuffed sofa in Oggie’s living room, which was piled high with books and boxes of worn-out shoes and enough lamps to light up Carlsbad Caverns, all but one of them unplugged. Living on a remote island, I was starting to realize, turned people into pack rats. Oggie sat facing us in a threadbare blazer and pajama bottoms, as if he’d been expecting company—just not pants-worthy company—and rocked endlessly in a plastic-covered easy chair as he talked. He seemed happy just to have an audience, and after he’d gone on at length about the weather and Welsh politics and the sorry state of today’s youth, Martin was finally able to steer him around to the attack and the children from the home.
“Sure, I remember them,” he said. “Odd collection of people. We’d see them in town now and again—the children, sometimes their minder-woman, too—buying milk and medicine and what-have-you. You’d say ‘good morning’ and they’d look the other way. Kept to themselves, they did, off in that big house. Lot of talk about what might’ve been going on over there, though no one knew for sure.”
“What kind of talk?”
“Lot of rot. Like I said, no one knew. All I can say is they weren’t your regular sort of orphan children—not like them Barnardo Home kids they got in other places, who you’ll see come into town for parades and things and always have time for a chat. This lot was different. Some of ’em couldn’t even speak the King’s English. Or any English, for that matter.”
“Because they weren’t really orphans,” I said. “They were refugees from other countries. Poland, Austria, Czechoslovakia …”
“Is that what they were, now?” Oggie said, cocking an eyebrow at me. “Funny, I hadn’t heard that.” He seemed offended, like I’d insulted him by pretending to know more about his island than he did. His chair-rocking got faster, more aggressive. If this was the kind of reception my grandpa and the other kids got on Cairnholm, I thought, no wonder they kept to themselves.
Martin cleared his throat. “So, Uncle, the bombing?”
“Oh, keep your hair on. Yes, yes, the goddamned Jerries. Who could forget them?” He launched into a long-winded description of what life on the island was like under threat of German air raids: the blaring sirens; the panicked scrambles for shelter; the volunteer air-raid warden who ran from house to house at night making sure shades had been drawn and streetlights were put out to rob enemy pilots of easy targets. They prepared as best they could but never really thought they’d get hit, given all the ports and factories on the mainland, all much more important targets than Cairnholm’s little gun emplacement. But one night, the bombs began to fall.
“The noise was dreadful,” Oggie said. “It was like giants stamping across the island, and it seemed to go on for ages. They gave us a hell of a pounding, though no one in town was killed, thank heaven. Can’t say the same for our gunner boys—though they gave as good as they got—nor the poor souls at the orphan home. One bomb was all it took. Gave up their lives for Britain, they did. So wherever they was from, God bless ’em for that.”