In The Library

First Look at Kate Williams’ The Edge of the Fall

We loved Kate Williams​’ spellbinding portrait of a German family living in Britain at the outbreak of the First World War, The Storms of War.
In case you can’t wait to find out what happens to the de Witt family as they enter the Roaring Twenties, we’ve got a sneak peek at the next novel in Kate’s historical trilogy The Edge of the Fall .
The Edge of the Fall is out in hardback, eBook and audio on 19th November 2015.

PROLOGUE

Margate, 1921

‘It really is beautiful, isn’t it,’ she said, raising her voice over the wind. He didn’t answer. They were walking along the cliffs, not too far from their guest house in Margate, and they had the place to themselves, a stretch of surprising green, thousands of daisies, tipping right to the edge. The air was exhilarating, whipping her hair out from its style, throwing her skirt against her legs. ‘I do love it here. It’s so peaceful.’ She squeezed his arm. ‘How clever of you to find it.’ It was astonishing, really, to think how much of an obsession places like the cliffs had been during the war. People always talking about them, no one allowed to live nearby. One composer, she read, had even been arrested by a Boy Scout while writing his music beside them, accused of being a German spy, his staves and clefs secret messages to be passed on. The sea in front of them stretched out for miles, calm, so bright under the sun that your eyes hurt. Impossible to think how they’d thought it was once full of U-boats and things like that, coming to kill them all.

She linked her arm in through his, leaned her head on his shoulder, reaching a little since he was so much taller. She felt him tense, nestled her head closer.

Things were so difficult for him. He’d suffered greatly – awfully, really – in the time before he’d met her. His family had been cruel. She knew that, with patience and her generosity, he’d come through. In a sense it was actually rather easy for her, because there was so much advice in newspapers and magazines for women like her about how to help damaged men, even though that was about war and Arthur had been in Paris the whole time. It was all about showing them that you understood what they’d been through, without actually saying that, because if you did, your words would be intrusive and whatever you said would not be exactly in line with his thinking, and the whole point of your quiet, sympathetic understanding was to show that you were in line with him, supported and loved him absolutely. If he ever did say anything, you were to use back precisely the same words, reflect, empathise, love. You didn’t have to go to the Somme to suffer, she wanted to say to him. It hurt for those at home too. Or in Paris. She felt the warmth of his arm on hers, pressed hers close. If she could close herself into the whole of him, she would. Now they had their new life together, they would be closer than ever.

They walked together, more slowly now because her head was on his shoulder. The sky was the colour of a paint she’d once had as a child, the blue of a baby’s eyes. She heard the word in her mind. Baby. Their child. She hugged the idea tight to herself, like a present. She would think about that later; right now her every thought was about him, so even though they weren’t speaking, he would be able to sense it, feel her affection, her devoted kindness. His shoulder was softening. He knew.

‘You can’t see anything but sea for miles,’ she said. ‘No ships at all.’ It was, she let herself think, a little like their future together. For now they had hope, it was a clear stretch of water, beautiful and welcoming. After all that time of hiding away, of having to pretend not to walk together, to stow themselves in the dark corners of restaurants, those nights (how many, a hundred?) that she spent alone, sitting at her window, dressed in the gowns he gave her money for, wondering whether he might come. Now, they were together, walking openly. She couldn’t believe, really, how generous he’d been to her over the past four days. It had been the thing she had always dreamed of, arm in arm in the hotel restaurant, walking to breakfast, promenading on the beach, taking ice creams together.

Yesterday, at a flower stall, right in the centre of town, he’d suddenly turned to her and said – which ones would you like? She had been confused, blushed, it was so unfamiliar, pointed at a few pink sweet peas. He’d smiled, demanded four bunches of them, then gardenias, daisies, dahlias, and some beautiful flowers that were dozens of pale pink ruffles with darker pink at the edges. ‘Any amount,’ he said. ‘Whatever you’d like. Have whatever you want, my love. My dear.’ By the end of her choosing – for every time she stopped, he encouraged her to go on, take more, they had a bunch of flowers almost bigger than her torso.

The woman had arranged them together, gathering up the stems, holding them together as she tied the whole thing up with skein, then a pink ribbon she chose. He handed over dozens of notes (the flowers must have been terribly costly, sent from other countries, surely), then popped the flowers in her hands. ‘For you, my darling,’ he said. A small crowd had gathered by then and at that one of them began applauding. Another man whooped. She heard two women sigh. ‘Lucky girl,’ one said. And she was. She was a lucky, lucky girl. For the rest of that day, her face had been as pink as the flowers. The colour of happiness; pleasure. That night, in the hotel restaurant, he wouldn’t let the waiter pull out her chair. ‘That’s my job,’ he said. ‘I must look after my wife.’

Wife! She thought then. The word he never used, the word he said they never should use. ‘Our relationship isn’t to be defined by words,’ he’d said. ‘It is too special.’ Never mention me. Keep us free of words, for words sully, make us of the world and we are free.

‘Those flowers were so lovely,’ she said to him. ‘No one’s ever done something like that for me. Thank you.’

He let her squeeze his arm. That’s how she knew he was agreeing with her, that inside his head he was saying: I love you. I will always love you.

‘I’m so fortunate to have you.’ The women in her head talked to her. ‘Lucky girl!’

‘It was nothing,’ he said, his voice quick and low. She smiled, wanted to hold him. He was like a little boy, embarrassed by the great gift he had given. They wouldn’t go back to the old ways, her poky little house in Marylebone, the hours of empty time, waiting. It was a new life for her. She would preside at his house, over his dinner parties in those wonderful Belgravia rooms, and then (in time, in time) at his family home, the chatelaine of the great house. She had a lot of plans for it. The gardens needed to be completely ripped out, for a start.

‘What would you like to do tonight, Arthur?’ She almost said the word husband, then shied away. ‘Shall we go to the hotel restaurant once more?’

He shrugged. ‘Perhaps.’ Then he manoeuvred her with her arm, towards the sea. ‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘It is beautiful. Why don’t we go closer?’

‘Closer?’

‘To the sea. It’s very handsome, as you say. You can see how the romantics thought this kind of place was the most beautiful.’

‘I wouldn’t want to go too close.’

He patted her arm. ‘Dear girl! Don’t worry yourself. I’m here to look after you.’

She held onto his arm. ‘Of course you are. You’re always here for me.’

He steered her closer. The grass was crisp, untouched, she thought. ‘Look at it from here,’ he said, a half foot or so from the edge. ‘Don’t you feel free, looking out like this?’

‘Oh yes.’ She clutched his arm hard. Directly below them the sea wasn’t calm at all, but slashing at the cliffs, rushing at the rocks like a furious monster. The spray surged up towards them. The rocks were uneven, jagged. Don’t look. She closed her eyes, but all she could see were fragments of cliff tumbling down into the sea. Once upon a time, the cliffs must have been miles further out to sea, but they had receded, collapsed into nothing and taken everything down with them. She held tight to him, forced herself to open her eyes. The water below looked even angrier.

‘Such wild beauty,’ he said.

‘Oh yes.’ She didn’t want him to see that she was afraid. She’d told him she’d never liked being high up, right from a little girl. He must have forgotten. She felt she was swaying a little. Think of something else, she told herself. Her great, magnificent bunch of flowers, spread out between three vases (as there was no single one big enough) in their bedroom. She fixed her mind on their delicate pinks, tried to hold her body still. She turned back, saw a man and a woman, arm in arm, sauntering towards them. They reminded her: this was all normal. A perfectly nice summer’s day. This was what couples did. Then she looked down again and her stomach lurched.

He shuffled closer to the edge – only a step from the side! She held back, the space between their arms greater. ‘I love the sea air in my face,’ he said. ‘Can you feel the spray?’

‘Oh yes!’

‘Are you quite sure?’

‘Oh yes, my dear.’

He brought up a finger, touched her cheek. ‘It is quite dry. Let me help you step forward.’
‘Oh, I am fine here.’ She wanted to pull him back to her.

He turned to face her, making her spin, force her to push her feet hard into the grass to stay still. ‘Don’t tell me you’re afraid. Not my wife! I wouldn’t believe it.’

‘I’m never afraid with you!’

‘Well, let me hold you then. Come along. I will hold you, keeping your waist, and you can move forward.’

She shook her head. The couple she’d seen were coming closer. The woman wore a stylish hat. The man looked familiar somehow. She couldn’t quite see his face, but there was something about his outline, his walk.

‘Come now.’ His eyes were darkening. ‘Don’t be foolish.’

She looked at him. She had to, she could see. She had to move the way he wanted to, prove it to him. He wanted to play the game again, like that time in Paris. She had to let him. It won’t be long, she told herself. You just have to stand where he wants you to, let him hold you. In a minute, maybe less, it will be over. All those things she did with her minutes, let them drift by as she gazed out of the window, tried and failed to read or embroider. This minute here would be nothing more than that.

Trust. It was all about trust. She had to trust him. She did trust him. He was her husband. She loved him!

‘Are you coming?’

‘Yes!’ She gathered together all her strength, all her love, all her need for him, and stepped forward. In a moment, he was behind her, holding her tight at the waist. She was only half a step from the edge. The water was churning below her, dizzying, sickly. Stop. She tried to stare out at the wide expanse of blue that had pleased her so much, could not.

‘See my dear!’ he said, content now. ‘How you can admire the beauty of nature from here. Nothing brings you closer, does it not?’
She looked up and the other man was coming closer. Who was he? She felt sure she knew him.

‘This is the way to see the grandeur of nature, its purity.’ He was shouting now, voice into the wind.

She nodded weakly, trying to charge her mind, her every thought into the soft, safe pressure of his hands on her waist. She closed her eyes again, thought of his fingers, their slightly dry flesh, the whorls on his thumbs, the delicate moons of his nails, the strength of his palms, holding her tight, safe.

But then, as she did so, the pressure of his palms began to change. It started to loosen, move away. She felt her body shake.

‘Darling,’ she began, but the words themselves seem to shake her, move her closer to the edge.

‘See,’ he said in her ear, his voice low. ‘Regard the beauties of nature.’

‘But—’

‘The world is ours,’ he said, as muffled as the sound of a shell held against her ear. ‘We could hold it in our hands.’

CHAPTER ONE

Celia

Stoneythorpe, May 1919

Stoneythorpe looked nothing like it used to. Celia couldn’t recognise it. She stood at what had been the great front gate, saw nothing. Walking in, the house wound around her, threw its dust into her face, everything in it a mockery – we aren’t the same! She tried to see it as someone new might, having never seen it how it was, not remembering the house full of people for a party, her mother presiding, immaculate in one of her pale blue gowns. She walked along in the hall, reached out her hand for the Chinese vase in the entrance. They’d packed it up before they’d turned the place into a hospital, she’d wrapped it in newspaper full of reports from the front and advertisements for false teeth. Jennie and Thompson had too, wrapping up vases, boxes, portraits, silver frames, stacking them into crates and then dragging them out to the garden, hauling them into the ground by the rose bushes, throwing soil over the top, promising themselves they wouldn’t forget where they were.

Celia always thought that they’d seize the vases out of the soil as quickly as they could. But in the end, they didn’t, not for ages, left them languishing there for nearly four months. We never get round to it, Celia heard her mother say. It wasn’t true, not for her anyway. She dreaded the beautiful things coming out, how they’d throw into sharp relief the broken house, its shabby walls, how everything was lost, how they’d let it fall into such disrepair even before Verena had turned it into a hospital – and when did the harried nurses or soldiers have time to care for a house? And yet, when she and the others finally did open up the soil, tug up the boxes, unpacking the layers of paper, pulling them off carefully – the vases, the boxes, the frames were not the same. She’d remembered them glittering, expensive, as a child she’d thought the vases the stuff of Chinese palaces. But the frames were tarnished, the boxes worn and the vase was not white but grey, tiny hairline cracks running down from the lip. Thompson had stared at them, lifted the frames, turned the vase around. ‘But they were so well packed up,’ he said. ‘I don’t understand it.’ It was as if the war had aged everything, dirtied it all, however much you hid things away.

Celia sat on the lowest step of the stair, the wood hard and cold on her legs. Her father Rudolf had longed for the house, said Elizabeth I had once visited. The de Witts would be Tudor high-borns, Celia supposed he thought, not German meat makers. And perhaps they were for a while, hosting great parties for the village, sitting in their pew in church, Emmeline engaged to marry Sir Hugh. Celia looked back at them, wanted to laugh. Didn’t you know? She wanted to cry. It was all just make believe, we were actors in some masque playing for Elizabeth, and then the war came and exposed the truth of what England felt: you are Germans and we hate you. ‘Little Celia,’ Rudolf had said, when he was finally sent home from the camp, the place he’d never talk about save that they never even had their own mattress. ‘The war stole your childhood.’ But it hadn’t, not really.

She’d been fifteen when the war had broken out, adult enough for everything. Her friend Tom running away, her brother Michael dying, then fleeing to France herself, seeing all the death, Rudolf being interned, Verena letting the house crumble around her, weeping her time away. She’d behaved like she was a million times older, she thought sometimes, asking Tom to love her, dancing with Michael’s friend Jonathan and offering herself to him, thinking that it might hurt less that way. And he’d said, no, you’re not like the others, talked of marriage. She remembered the moment she learned the terrible truth of Michael’s death and the sky had fallen in.

They’d kept going, looked for years ahead. Now, when they’d got to the years they’d all been looking for – she didn’t want them. She didn’t know what to do with them. She didn’t even want to be here anymore, but there was no room for her at Emmeline and Mr Janus’s flat, now Emmeline was pregnant. She was like the vase, cracked, not the same, nothing like it, perched on her spot, still painted.

‘Louisa?’ she called. There was no answer. She supposed they should have covered the place in bunting to welcome her. They would have done, before the war. But then, before the war her cousin would have been staying because they were having a ball or for some sort of holiday. She wouldn’t be coming to live with them because her mother had died and she was alone. What was she going to say to her? Celia didn’t know. Louisa had always been a child, now she was sixteen, parentless, nearly an adult and she was come to be in their family, another sister.

The Storms of War is out now in paperback, eBook and audio.

The Edge of the Fall is out in hardback, ebook and audio on 19th November 2015.

The whole thing had got off on the wrong foot. They’d gone into town to collect some things for Louisa, nice cakes and the like (well, such was the plan, in the event there was nothing but a tired looking plum cake) and meant to be back just before she’d arrived. But they were late starting out and Verena had to stop to talk to a woman she knew and then they saw Mr Pemberton, the solicitor and you had to talk to him – and so they were late back even though all the while, Celia felt the panic as if she was back in a dream about school and late for a lesson, wanting them to hurry along, go faster. Verena had talked on about being kind to Louisa, treating her delicately. The poor child, she said. ‘Can’t you go faster?’ Celia pleaded. But they were still late, and when they arrived, Jennie had come out to meet them, said that Louisa had been there for an hour or so, gone up to her room, hadn’t wanted to talk.

So Verena said she wouldn’t come out, sent Celia. And now here she was, sitting at the bottom of the stairs, shouting for Louisa, her voice echoing around the hall. She’d imagined all the ways she’d be kind to Louisa, how she’d take her to places and they’d talk, play music together, discuss books.

She’d comfort Louisa – and in the process, feel better herself, less alone. Helping others, that was the way to feel better, so the teachers at Winterbourne had told them. She hadn’t thought much of Louisa when she was young, always the little girl trying to join in, run after them when she was too slow and fell over her feet. Then throughout the war, she didn’t see her. As soon as the British newspapers started filling up with the Kaiser and his evils, Aunt Deerhurst said that it would be better if they really didn’t meet. They’d come for Michael’s funeral in that freezing winter, but Louisa had hardly spoken. Cousin Matthew had talked on, attracting all the light. Celia was ashamed of herself; she’d been so caught up in her own grief, she’d hardly seen Louisa at all. Now, she would make it up to her. The two of them would be friends. They’d welcome Louisa into Stoneythorpe now she had arrived and then it would begin.

The Edge of the Fall is out in hardback, ebook and audio on 19th November 2015.

Kate Williams

Kate Williams is an author, social historian, constitutional and royal expert, broadcaster and novelist. She has an MA from Queen Mary, University of London, and a DPhil from the University of Oxford. She appears regularly on the BBC and Channel 4. She lives in London.