It’s amazing to me how few people today have even heard of Sir Hugo Pennington. I only vaguely knew the name myself until I was researching for my PhD on, well, let’s just say, the wilder shores of science during World War II. When I began reading up on him, I could hardly believe my eyes. There in the British Library, for anyone to see, were his blueprints for such things as a cloaking device for bomber planes and, most incredibly of all, a force-field generator to blanket all of London, devised to be set atop the dome of St Paul’s.
Of course, none of these came to pass, but there must have been other things that did, no doubt shrouded by the Official Secrets Act for decades still to come. Pennington, a precociously young man then, was a favourite and close confidante of Churchill, and that was an honour accorded to just a special few. But, in spite of the knighthood in 1945, they had fallen out badly by the end of the war. Pennington wrote an impassioned article decrying the use of the atomic bomb on Japan, and Churchill cast him out into the wilderness, as only a man who has known his own wilderness can so effectively do.
Little evidence remains of what he worked on after the war, just some tabloid headlines from the 1960s. Clearly he was one of their choice figures of fun when news was short: “POTTY PROF SAYS CARS WILL RUN ON WATER!” blared a typical one. After that, it was just the obits. He died in 1972, aged sixty, ‘after a long battle with illness’. He left no children, but a widow, Hortensia.
I found an address and wrote to her, asking if I could send her some questions that would help with my research. I didn’t expect to hear back, given that she was in her eighties. So I was astonished when the thick cream envelope arrived, and even more so when I read the hand-written card inside, the writing slightly shaky but elegant and distinctive:
‘My dear Mr Grahame, it would be a pleasure to meet you to talk about my beloved Hugo. Please be so good as to telephone Cracknell at this number and he will arrange a date for you to visit me at Wanderlings for tea.’
When my old Fiat crunched onto the immaculate gravel drive of Wanderlings House, a week later, I nearly drove into an ancient yew, so breathtaking was the house and its setting. Designed by Lutyens, with a steep mansarded roof and hung at first-floor level with faded russet tiles, it perched on a ridge of the South Downs, so the back of the house and its gardens had sun-filled vistas from morning to night. It was quite the most perfect house I had ever seen.
The door was opened by a manservant – Cracknell, I now know – who led me through the house towards the gardens. Wanderlings was as lovely inside as it was out. Oak-panelled walls were covered with beautiful paintings – not dark ancestral portraits but light, airy landscapes and elegant nature studies. There were Ming vases of wild and cottage-garden flowers, squashy old sofas and faded Indian rugs, and the aromas of beeswax and woodsmoke.
As we passed a grand piano covered with photographs in silver frames, two caught my eye. In the first, there was Pennington, shaking hands with Churchill. Pennington must have been no more than thirty but looked middle-aged, as every adult did in those days, with greased-back hair and government-issue spectacles. Churchill looked, well, like Churchill. They were regarding one another seriously, formally. But there, at Pennington’s side, her arm tightly linked in his, her whole posture indicating pride in her man, was a simply radiant girl, beaming dazzlingly at the camera. Her fair hair was floating about her face as if she had just shaken her head and, despite the elegant little peplum-waisted, hound’s-tooth-checked suit that she was wearing, on looking closely I could see that she had kicked off her shoes. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the thought of this wild child in the presence of Britain’s Bulldog. In the second picture, she was again on Pennington’s arm, perhaps a year later, and this time in a simple bridal gown, surrounded by family, outside a church whose windows were boarded up against the Blitz. I had not thought her smile could possibly be broader, but it was, and it had clearly infected Pennington, because he was beaming too.
Cracknell coughed quietly and I took my cue to continue out onto the colonnaded terrace. It was a perfect September afternoon, and the great oaks in the valley cast their shadows over mown hayfields, languid Jersey cows and dozing sheep. Beyond a stand of rustling poplars I could see an ornate little summerhouse set on the bank of a stream. There was barely a cloud in the sky, and a lark was tumbling music overhead. I felt I had stumbled into paradise.
I followed Cracknell down the gently sloping lawns to where Lady Pennington was waiting, at a small table already set for tea, an elderly chocolate Labrador dozing at her feet.
“Lady Pennington? Michael Grahame.” I extended my hand.
“Oh do please call me Polly, everyone does.”
She took my hand and looked up at me, and there was that dazzling smile. Her fair hair was silver now, of course, and held up loosely with Oriental lacquered pins. Her face was lined, her hands knotted and spotted with age. But her eyes, a clear blue-violet and dark-lashed, were still those of that young woman in the picture. Ageless, and beautiful. I confess I fell a little bit in love with her at that moment. I suspect she had that effect on most men, probably even Churchill.
“Polly?” I queried, trying to work out how that derived from Hortensia.
She laughed. “It’s what Hugo always called me. Neither of us much liked the name Hortensia – rather blowsy flowers, I always think – so he called me Polly because I was always drawing and painting.”
She saw my blank look.
“You know – ‘Polly-wolly doodles all the day’!”
It was only then that I noticed the easel behind her, and the smudgy palette on the stool beside it, and indeed that the dress she was wearing was actually a faded chambray artist’s smock.
As if politely to cover my confusion, she rang the tiny silver bell that lay beside her plate. Moments later Cracknell bore to the table a tray of tea, cucumber and salmon sandwiches, and a three-tier stand laden with tiny butterfly cakes.
We talked for what seemed like hours. Of his work and his inventions, and of his pain at being ignored and ridiculed (and of hers on his behalf). But also of how they met, she fifteen and broken-hearted at the injury that had ended her dreams of becoming a dancer, he twenty-five and just down from Cambridge, and so handsome, she said, that her heart healed the moment she first saw him. Of their life together, and their travels in Greece, and Italy, and the Far East. Of his final illness …
When we had finished with all the questions in my notebook, I began to sense that the meeting was drawing to a close, but I plucked up courage and began: “Polly, when Hugo died…”
“Oh, my dear, he didn’t die, he just disappeared,” she said, smiling.
I took it to be an old woman’s fanciful expression and continued.
“Well, when he… disappeared, you were only, what, fifty? Did you never consider marrying again?”
“My dear boy, how could I?”
I let it pass.
“And how do you spend your days now?”
“Well, to be honest with you, Michael, these days I don’t leave Wanderlings a great deal. I have a seemingly endless supply of great-nieces and nephews who fortuitously appear to enjoy coming to visit me. I paint – did you see my paintings in the house? – and I supervise the gardener, much to her displeasure, and the cook, much to his. And I read a great deal… and I wait.”
“Yes, I wait for Hugo. Every day.”
From within the house came the faint notes of a clock, chiming five.
“Good heavens, is that the time? I am so sorry Michael, you will have to excuse me, I have an appointment that I cannot miss.”
She rang the bell again and Cracknell came down the steps from the terrace.
“Cracknell, would you be a dear and show Michael out? Oh, and there is a notebook of Hugo’s that I would like to loan you, Michael, I think you will find it useful in your work. You can return it to me the next time you visit. Cracknell will get it from the office while you have a look at my paintings.” She smiled once more, and turned away.
I watched her walking down the lawns, towards the stream by the summerhouse, the old dog waddling, stiff but devoted, beside her. Despite the silver-topped cane she carried, she seemed to step as lightly as the barefoot girl she once was.
When we reached the terrace, there was a slight buzzing in the air, and I looked up, expecting to see a microlite passing overhead, but the sky was empty except for a swirl of swallows. As I entered the cool shade of the house, I was sure that I heard a young girl’s laughter, drifting up from the meadows by the stream.
The next week I read that she had died, ‘peacefully, in her sleep, aged eighty-six’. That’s what it said. Now, I have a scientific mind. I am not prone to flights of fancy. But I can’t help wondering. Did she die, or did she somehow ‘disappear’ too, to be with her beloved Hugo again at last? Did he come for her at last?
I have still have Hugo Pennington’s fat leather notebook in my desk drawer. I haven’t even opened it. I’m not sure I’m ready to read what I might find there.