Nita Doonan tells the terrifying story of when her mother and aunt were thought dead after a clifftop fall in Portland
Published in November ’15
One Sunday in July 1925, two young girls walked up a cliff path in Portland, happy to be out in the fresh air and away from the stuffy atmosphere of the laundry where they both worked from 8.00-6.00, six days a week. The girls were sisters – Norah and Evelyn Gilday – and they had come from their home in Dorchester to the Isle of Portland to visit their married sister, May, who
It made a nice change for them to have a day to themselves for, being the two youngest in a family of fifteen children, their mother could always find plenty of jobs for them to do at home. Some of their brothers and sisters had left home to work or to get married, but there were still enough of them left to make a lot of work and their mother needed all the help she could get. Their father was an engineer and it was part of his job to search for underground springs and to sink wells for local farmers.
The two girls wore their Sunday best dresses, which, in the style of the day, fell in an unbroken line from their shoulders to below their hips, then sprayed out into tiny pleats to the middle of their calves. Their dark hair was parted in the middle and plaited into coils over their ears in a style commonly known as ‘earphones’. Norah wore a white cardigan over her dress and Evelyn, at sixteen the elder by two years, wore a cream straw hat which she secretly believed made her look very grown-up and sophisticated.
When Norah and Evelyn reached the end of the path, Norah threw herself down on the grass and gazed out over the magnificent view which spread itself beneath them. To the right was the artificial isthmus of Ferrybridge, which links Portland with the mainland, and the magnificent sweep of Chesil beach curving away into the distance. All around them the water of the English Channel stretched away as far as the eye could see, sparkling and dancing in the sunshine.
Evelyn sat carefully down on a ledge of rock, fussily smoothing down the pleats of her dress as she did so. She had suffered a great deal of illness during her childhood and adolescence and, subsequently, was regarded by her family as ‘delicate’. Secretly, she envied Norah her tomboyish ways but she certainly was not going to admit this to her sister. ‘You’ll get grass stains on your dress, our Norah’, she said primly.
‘Oh, I don’t care,’ the other girl replied, ‘Don’t be such a fusspot, Ev.’
‘Let’s go and pick some flowers – oh, look at those lovely blue ones over there.’ She ran over to the edge of the cliff and, holding on to a clump of grass, stretched her arm out as far as it would go in an effort to reach the wild flowers.
‘Norah, Norah, don’t go so near the edge.’ Evelyn’s voice was shrill with anxiety.
‘Oh, don’t be such a cissy Ev, You really are such a cowardy custard.’
Norah drew back from the edge of the cliff and turned to face her sister. ‘All right then, if you’re not a coward, pick the flowers yourself.’
Evelyn, her face white as paper, her lips pressed tightly together, edged slowly towards the edge of the cliff.
Afterwards, Norah could never recall exactly what happened next. All she could remember was seeing Evelyn slip, stepping forward to catch her, and then a sensation of falling, falling, through space, the sound of someone’s screams ringing in her ears. When she opened her eyes the sun was still shining down, gulls were wheeling and dipping and circling in the clear, blue sky above her. She could hear the faint sound of someone moaning. Cautiously, she sat up and began to make experimental movements with her arms and legs. Nothing seemed to be broken but every movement brought a gasp of pain to her lips and she was covered in scratches and cuts. Her watch was gone and the little silver ring her father had given her for her 14th birthday had been torn off her finger. Gradually, she became aware that the moaning had become louder and now it was turning into screams.
‘Oh my God, I can’t see! I’m blind! I’m blind!’
With a swift movement that made her wince with pain, Norah twisted herself around to look behind her. Evelyn lay on her back, her once-pretty dress a mass of torn rags and her face a mask of blood. Norah dragged herself to her feet and limped over the pebbles pulling off her cardigan as she went. Reaching the water’s edge she dipped the garment into the sea and then, wringing it out, she staggered back up the beach to her sister, who was still screaming, ‘Norah, where are you? What’s happened? I can’t see. I’m blind!’
‘Dear God’, thought Norah, ‘What have I done? Everyone will blame me. We’re all supposed to take particular care of Evvie and now I’ve made her fall over the cliff because I taunted her.’
Her mind was in a turmoil and she was trembling violently but her voice betrayed none of this as she began to bathe her sister’s face.
‘Shut up Evvie! Stop screaming. You’re not blind, it’s just the blood’s got in your eyes.’
Evelyn, however, had lost consciousness again and, as Norah gently wiped the blood away, she could see a huge gash right across her sister’s forehead, just below the hairline. Once again, she crept down to the water’s edge, rinsed the cardigan out and, returning, made it into a makeshift bandage and wrapped it around Evelyn’s head.
Suddenly she felt faint and dizzy. A fresh breeze had sprung up and she realised with dismay that the afternoon was waning towards evening. What was she to do? How could she get help? If they stayed there all night, Evvie might die. A wave of nausea swept over her and she sat down abruptly on the pebbles and put her head between her knees as her mother had told her to do if she ever felt faint. When she looked up again, she thought she would faint again – this time with relief – for far out across the water she could see a boat and it was coming towards them. Evvie moaned softly and opened her eyes and tried to sit up. Norah clasped her in her arms, the tears she had so bravely choked back now pouring down her cheeks.
‘We’re saved, Evvie, we’re saved! Everything’s going to be all right!’
As they watched, the boat came slowly nearer. The muscles of the two men who were rowing bulged as they strained against the oars, for the wind had become quite strong now and was against them. At last they got near enough to the shore to jump out onto the beach and drag the boat high up onto the pebbles. They came striding and stumbling up the beach, their heavy wellington boots sinking deep into the pebbles with every step.
‘Are you badly hurt?’ one of them called as they got nearer, ‘Can you walk?’
‘I can’, called Norah, who was still sitting with her arms around Evelyn, ‘But my sister can’t, she’s hurt her head. Oh thank goodness you’ve come’, her voice caught on a sob, ‘How did you know we were here?’
One of the men bent and picked up Evelyn in his arms while the other one helped Norah and they began to make slow and careful progress towards the boat.
‘You were very lucky’, said the second man, ‘We were out there fishing and we saw you fall. Great heavens, though, I never thought we’d find you alive.’
For Norah, the next hour or so passed in a blur. She and Evelyn were taken to the house of the District Nurse who examined them both for broken bones and applied a dressing to the wound in Evelyn’s head. She was just finishing the last of the bandaging when there was a great commotion outside and the door was opened to admit an utterly distraught May.
‘Where are they? Where are my sisters? Oh, Norah, Evelyn, you’re alive! I heard you were both dead!’ She hugged them both to her, careless of their moans and cries as she crushed their bruises. Then her tone of relief turned to one of anger.
‘You naughty girls! It’s a wonder I’m not dead of shock! I’ve got to get you home before Mother and Daddy hear about the accident. Everybody’s saying you’re dead!’
And out she swept to return a few minutes later with the information that she had a taxi outside with its meter running.
Norah’s mouth dropped open with astonishment. She’d never been in a taxi in her life and to take one all the way to Dorchester was, to her mind, on a par with taking a trip to the moon. She began to perk up considerably and even Evelyn began to look decidedly interested. Over the protestations of the nurse, whose professional opinion was that they should not be moved yet, they were half-carried, half-pushed into the dark, leather-scented interior of the taxi. The driver slammed the doors and, goaded by an impatient May, proceeded to make all haste, within the limitations of the law, along Ferrybridge, through Weymouth and back to Dorchester. And it was as well that May had acted with such speed because, even then, the dreadful (albeit slightly inaccurate) news had beaten them to it. As they drove along South Street, the placard outside the Echo office declared in bold black letters:
TWO DORCHESTER GIRLS
FALL 40 FT. OVER PORTLAND CLIFFS
Norah gasped and they all looked at each other in dismay. There was no need to put their thoughts into words – what would their parents be thinking?
As the cars slowed to a stop outside the house in Fordington, the tear-stained face of their mother appeared at the window. Then it vanished and the door was thrown open and she ran out into the street, tears streaming down her cheeks. Their father followed close on her heels, his face wreathed in smiles of relief and joy.
In the flurry and chaos that followed, Norah made herself as small as possible and escaped out into the back yard. She turned on the outside tap and began to wash the blood off her legs. She hurt all over and felt so miserable she wanted to die. How could she face her father? Although she was the youngest, she knew it was her fault. She had led Evvie on. Hot tears splashed down to mingle with the cold tap water and she was so lost in her own misery that she didn’t know her father had come out until she felt his strong arms around her lifting her up.
‘We wondered where you’d gone. Come on my brave little one. The doctor said you couldn’t have done a better thing than bathe Evvie’s face with the salt water. You did your best to look after her and I only thank the good Lord above that you’re both safe.’
Much later, Norah lay wrapped up warm in her bed, a stone hot water bottle at her feet and her head pleasantly muzzy from the effects of the few drops of brandy her mother had put into her hot milk. Amy, another of her sisters, sat beside the bed, and she could just see Evvie in the other bed by the window, her white bandage shining in the moonlight. Her heavy eyes closed and she began to drift into the blessed arms of sleep, but just before exhaustion finally overtook her, a small bubble of laughter escaped from her lips. A picture had suddenly formed itself in her mind of the way Evvie had looked coming back in the taxi, her ‘earphones’ bulging the bandages out into curiously shaped lumps at each side of her head and her straw hat, battered and torn, sitting drunkenly atop the lot.
‘What’s the matter, Norah? What are you laughing at?’ Amy strained to see her sister’s face in the darkness. But Norah was fast asleep. ◗