Chapter Three: Escalation

Grace, May 1940

I made my peace with my family, but it was an uneasy peace, rather like the agreement Chamberlain made with Hitler before the outbreak of war. I was disillusioned with the way my father appeared to have abandoned his egalitarian principles.  Wishing to excuse his behaviour, I blamed my stepmother, convincing myself she had exerted her influence over him concerning the issue of Mabel. 

As an act of peace, my parents had offered to reinstate my friend in her old job.  But she had declined, explaining that she was enjoying the pay and conditions at the munitions’ factory and preferred the work.  Tara got into dreadful hot water over the business of the missing message. She responded by sulking in her room for two days, only coming out to say goodbye to Bruce.  Madeline openly relished the whole affair, glad to see someone else causing a family row and thus distracting attention from her swelling stomach.  My stepmother was convinced Madeline had trapped Bruce into marriage by her pregnancy.  I was inclined to agree, although I said nothing.

It was very sad bidding my older brother goodbye. Fundamentally, he was a kind man, with none of his wife’s snobbish pretensions.  He visited me the day before he left for Biggin Hill, which was nearby, and apologised for his part in the row. Remembering his pleasant behaviour towards Stan,  I forgave him at once.  We spent an hour together, with me hugging him hard when it came to our farewells.  “Good luck, dear old thing,” I whispered, and kissed his cheek. “Take great care, up there in your Spitfire.  And shoot down hundreds of Jerries, won’t you?”

“Never fear, sister dear,” he quipped, although his voice quavered. “I’ll prang the lot of them and live to tell the tale.  Although, I must confess, I’m not relishing the prospect.” As I stood and watched him hurrying away, I was filled with misapprehension..  I loved my brother very much and couldn’t help but wonder when, or whether,  I would see him again.

Life on the farm was hectic.  I was responsible for milking the cows, a task I found satisfying, having become expert at extracting the maximum amount of liquid with the minimum of fuss, which was one advantage of having large, unladylike hands.  Then it was off to the fruit orchards to check the cherry trees for blackfly and other blights before I went to help out in the hop-fields.  I arrived home exhausted every evening, with no energy for anything except to soak in a hot bath and sink thankfully into an early bed.

It was two weeks before I was entitled to even a single day’s leave, and on the one Sunday I was free, I excused myself from going to the Cottage for lunch and slept for most of the day. Saunders, who delivered my evening meal, awoke me. Before settling down in my shining little kitchen to eat, I switched on the wireless, thankful for this rare opportunity to catch up with the news.

It was 19th May. All across the continent, battles were raging. Richard Dimbleby, my favourite War Correspondent, was making hourly bulletins.  I already knew of the enemy’s progress into Brussels.  Bruce had phoned Mother last week, to let us all know he’d flown two missions into French territory, although he was forbidden to disclose their destination.  He boasted how his squadron had shot down ten enemy planes as part of their mission.  ‘How cheap life has become,’ I thought on hearing this news.

From what Dimbleby was saying now, it looked as if France was about to fall.  Thousands of British troops were being driven northwest. Dimbleby continued. “The enemy thrust appears to have changed direction towards the Channel ports, enabling the Germans to encircle both British and Belgian troops in a pincer movement, driving a wedge between the two armies.  Meanwhile, our men are being bombed and shelled by German tanks as they are driven back.  French towns are being indiscriminately destroyed in the enemy’s wake.”

“Come on Churchill, do your stuff,” I entreated, having joined my Land Army colleagues in cheering heartily when, on May 10, Churchill had been made Prime Minister.  I’d never been a fan of the man, especially after his repression of the miners during the Depression, but at least he was more decisive than Chamberlain.  Alarmed at the direction events were taking, I  walked to the telephone box to call the Cottage, anxious for any news of Bruce. 

Madeline answered.  Mack and Tara had left to continue their studies but Bruce had insisted Madeline stay on at the Cottage, concerned their Belgrave flat was too dangerous a location for a lone pregnant woman. Madeline had capitulated, much to my stepmother’s distaste.  Not really liking my sister –in –law either,  I also felt sorry for her - it must be awful, expecting a child and not knowing if your husband would live to see it.   So when she informed me there was no further news, I tried to cheer her up. “Well you know what they say. No news is good news.” My false optimism did nothing to raise Madeline’s spirits. She sounded terribly low.  I rang off as soon as possible, not wishing to become embroiled in her complaints about my stepmother.

Two days later, I huddled exhausted in my kitchen and listened to Dimbleby. News from the Front was growing grimmer by the hour. The Germans, having captured all major landmarks on their way, had reached the Channel.  Panzer divisions swarmed through the French towns, following the dive-bombers that hewed a path before them.  The allies were being relentlessly driven to the Coast.  Although there had been talk for days of a German invasion, no one really thought it would happen.  Now it appeared our troops were going to be slaughtered on the Normandy beaches.  Who would stop the enemy then?

The next evening, after finishing work, I decided to call in on my parents and listen to the news with them.  If we were on the brink of invasion, we may not have many more opportunities to be together.   It was time to build bridges.  I leaned my bicycle against the gate and hurried down the path, entering through the front door.  “Cooie,” I called, in typical Mother fashion. “Is anybody home?” 

“Cooie!” Mother replied. “I’m here, in the drawing room.”  I kissed her cheek on my way to my father’s favourite wing chair. “Where’s Dad?” I asked, sinking into the soft green cushions.

Mother had been studying the Evening Standard, pages scattered in disarray on the sofa.  She looked at me over the rim of her reading glasses.  Her expression was strange, her eyes deep pools as she replied. “I don’t know dear, he went up to town yesterday.  Some mysterious meeting with Dowding and his associates.  Top secret.  He rang to say he would stay overnight, before stopping to check on the Lady Dot on his way home today.  He took Saunders with him as well. Most odd.” I wondered, having heard only last week how the Admiralty had requested that owners of self-propelled light ocean vessels over thirty feet long should offer them for requisition for a potential evacuation.  The Lady Dot, our yacht, used by Dad for sailing the Broads, was forty foot, with a petrol-driven engine.

“You don’t think he’s involved with this evacuation business, do you Mother?” I exclaimed. 

“Of course not.” Mother was unprepared to admit such suspicions, even to herself.  I knew the subject was closed.

As she went to organise some tea, I switched on the wireless.  “The Home Guard and civilian volunteers in Margate have been asked to stand by to receive evacuees from the French coast.”  Dimbleby sounded grave. “Barbed wire is being erected along all southern and eastern beaches in an effort to keep the enemy back.” 

‘My God, it’s really happening.’ Mother had returned with a tray. We drank our tea in silence as we listened.  The evacuation had started the day before, when nearly two hundred extra trains had been laid on from Margate to transport the first of the rescued troops, these being mainly non-combatants and the wounded. In an effort to keep these activities secret, their journey took place mostly at night.

“Daphne’s son is stationed at East Manning aerodrome.” Mother switched off the wireless.  “He says activity there is frantic. The RAF are flying all night.  God knows where to, he’s forbidden to tell her, but it must be France, don’t you think?”   I could hear the anxiety in her voice. Of course, we were all worried about Bruce.  

“I expect so.”  I replied.  “By the way, where’s Madeline?”

“Oh, her. Probably over at the House, she’s made friends with two frightful WRAF girls and spends a lot of time in the Mess, as they call the dining room.  I expect she’s flirting with the officers. You know what’s said. While the cat’s away-”

“Well, she’s probably lonely and can get firsthand news of what’s going on from her friends.  It’s a way of keeping in touch with Bruce.”  I said reasonably, feeling sorry for my sister-in-law. 

Mother knowing she was being unfair, had the decency to blush.  “You’re probably right. What about you?  Have you done anything interesting lately?”

“Well, if you call milking the cows and stringing hop poles interesting, then I suppose I have.  Actually, I did go to the cinema with some of the Land girls the other night.  We went to the Odeon in Maidstone.  We were given a lift there and back in the farm’s old lorry. That was an experience in itself.”

“I’m sure it was, in the blackout.  You’re fortunate you didn’t have an accident.  What film did you see?”

“Oh Mother. You’d have loved it. ‘Gone with the Wind.’ One of your favourite books isn’t it?”  Not giving her the chance to reply I continued. “It was absolutely marvellous, although I didn’t really identify with Vivienne Leigh’s Scarlet, the rest of the actors were wonderful.  Especially Clark Gable.  So debonair, yet so manly.  Do you remember the ending? Well when he said ‘Quite frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,’ you could have heard a pin drop.  Not many of us had dry eyes when it finished. You really must see it.”

“Well, you obviously enjoyed it, so perhaps next time I go up to town. If there is a next time and we’re not under German rule by then.”  She sighed. “Have you seen anything of Mabel or her family?”

I stiffened, before answering. “As a matter of fact, I did catch a glimpse of the son at the cinema.  Before you jump to any conclusions, he was with his girlfriend, if you really want to know.”  I hoped my voice didn’t give me away.  Catching sight of him leaving the cinema, I’d felt ridiculously hurt. He had his arm around the slender waist of a lovely young blonde, who looked as good as Scarlet herself.  “So you see,  your fears were totally unfounded.”

“Yes, yes, quite so.” Mother had apparently lost interest in the whole affair, thank God.  ‘As if a man like that would notice a plain Jane like me!’ I thought, actually feeling my eyes begin to sting.  It had been a shock, seeing them together like that.  ‘Just as well. Obviously, you are carrying a torch for him Grace, you fool.’

“Grace, are you listening?” Mother sounded impatient. “I was saying, Lady Mosley telephoned yesterday.  She sounded frightfully flustered, something about her grandson, Oswald.  I had no idea what on earth she was talking about so told her she’d have to ring your father. Do you know what she means?”

“Oh yes indeed I do. I thought everybody knew about that horrible grandson

of hers.  He founded the Fascist Union, remember? They were known as the Blackshirts. Went round the East End of London, terrorising Jews, attacking communists and trade union members.  Another bloody Hitler, if you ask me.  Well, he’s in prison.  I heard it on the wireless last night.  Good job too!” I banged my fist on the table.

“Really Grace, your language is dreadful.  Quieten down at once. Of course, I’ve heard of the Blackshirts. Poor Lady Mosley, what an embarrassment.”

I was fashioning a tart reply when the telephone rang.  While Mother went to answer it, I paced the room.  The tension of this war was tearing my nerves to shreds.  I had begun to adjust the blackout curtains when she returned.  From her bearing, I knew she was upset. “That was your father. He’s been delayed and won’t be back until tomorrow, perhaps even later. Something’s going on, but will he tell me?” Her voice was fraught. She rarely criticised Dad. They were fiercely loyal to one another.  It showed how unsettling this war had become for all of us.  Spontaneously, I put my arm around her shoulders, which meant I had to reach up, she was so much taller. She allowed me to embrace her for at least ten seconds, which meant she must be really worried.

“Ruddy men!” I resumed my pacing.  “They start these wars and we women are left waiting about to pick up the pieces.”

“Nonsense.” Came the retort. “You’re in the Land Army, many women are in the WRAF, and what about those in the factories?”

“My point exactly, Mother. We women pick up the pieces.  I was talking to a WRAF girl who visited the farm the other day.  Do you know they work only in the control rooms? They’re not allowed to fly. The munitions workers make the bombs the men drop. The ambulance corps and nurses tend the wounded, and when the war is over, the women are sent back to the kitchen sink.  Dispensable as ever.”

“Well, there is, of course some truth in what you say, but women were born to be married and raise families while their husbands worked.  That’s why we have babies, isn’t it? For goodness sake, that’s enough now. No more of your soapbox please.  I’m tired, it’s been a hectic day and I must get some sleep.”

“Sorry Mother.” I really was sorry. She did look tired.  I’d hit a sore spot and should have kept quiet.  Mother had been Secretary of the Centre when it was first established, but since its expansion, she’d been banished into the offices as a mere administrator.  No wonder she didn’t want to listen.

“ I’ll get off to the flat, get a bath.  We all need our sleep these days.”

But I wasn’t going to get any sleep.  Just as I’d snuggled down, hot water bottle against my aching back, a terrific explosion rent the silence.  I leapt from my bed and, contrary to all the War Ministry’s instructions, parted the curtain and peeped out.  The sky was lit up as if it was bonfire night, with violent flashes of violet and gold.  I could hear the sound of ack-ack fire, smell the cordite.  Occasionally, the hullabaloo rose as a train sped past, carrying our defeated armies to safety.   The roar of our planes added to the cacophony.  It was as bright as day.  It seemed as if the world was at an end.  And this, I knew, was only the beginning.

I was to learn the next day that what I’d witnessed had been caused by  explosions from the battle raging around Dunkirk. So it continued for the next three days. On 26 May the evacuation of Dunkirk began in earnest. By then, both my father and my brother went missing.

The Belgian Army had been completely overwhelmed by the Germans. The British Expeditionary Forces and divisions of the devastated French Army, were being relentlessly driven back towards the sea. Beyond the beaches, where the retreating troops cowered, awaiting rescue, nearly a hundred ocean-going craft, many crewed by civilian volunteers, began the evacuation.  Troops and vessels were under constant bombardment from land, sea and air. The operation lasted for eight full days and nights. Somewhere in this debacle was my father, in his yacht.

Mother was frantic.  Dad had returned home on 24 May to inform the family that they were going to Dunkirk.  He was determined to do his bit. Saunders, who had once been a ship’s bosun, was equally determined to accompany him.  There was no arguing with either of them, although Mother did try, pointing out that, quite apart from the danger of physical injury, he was now booked up with consultations every day, two days having already been re-scheduled.  Although she no longer did the appointments book, my stepmother would be held to account for her husband’s actions by the ferocious secretary of the Centre, Pheobe Suremont.  (We all detested Pheobe, who in turn detested all of us except Dad.)

No matter what was said,  Dad would not be swayed, even when Mother resorted to emotional blackmail, stating that, as a man with an important mission in life, he shouldn’t put himself at risk unnecessarily.“ It is the will of a higher order. ”He contended.“ I am meant to go, Doctor has instructed me to go. That is the end of the matter.  You will have to do your best to hold Pheobe at bay until I return, Bella. Doctor assures me, I most certainly will.”

The reports from Dunkirk were terrifying.  From 28 May until the 4 of June, our men and their allies were being bombarded as they shivered, hungry and exposed on the beaches, waiting to be picked up.  The boats and smaller vessels that had been sent to their rescue were also being continuously attacked as they ferried the men to the larger naval vessels.  On 28 May, we listened as awful accounts of our Navy being under heavy attack came over the wireless.  First, HMS Wakefield, which had already survived one torpedo attack that morning, was rent in two as she made her way to the Channel.  The hundreds of men crammed on her decks stood no chance of survival and perished with the ship. As other destroyers went to the rescue and lowered lifeboats to look for survivors, many received direct hits from German U boats.  It was carnage. 

“The German Navy has indisputably won the first round in the ocean battle raging off the beaches of Dunkirk.” Dimbleby reported that night. What of Dad and Saunders, in the valiant Lady Dot?  How on earth could they survive against such overwhelming odds?  I thanked God for the RAF. It was reported how, once the weather improved the following morning, our planes were doing a valorous job by holding at bay the main thrust of the enemy’s attack. Squadrons from Biggin Hill, where Bruce was based, were engaged in combat. At the insistence of ‘Old Stuffy’ Dowding, these squadrons were rotated, with no more than sixteen planes engaged in conflict at any one time.  We were later to learn that Doctor, through Dad, had warned the Air Marshall to hold his fighters’ strengths in reserve to prepare for the invasion attempt that would inevitably  follow the defeat of France. The family was frantically concerned for Bruce’s safety, as well as for Dad’s.

I was in constant contact with the Cottage and was informed by Madeline, through her WRAF contacts, that women were being asked to congregate at the main railway stations to distribute food and cigarettes to the evacuated soldiers. The trains, which were now running day and night, were being halted at every station between Dover and London.   The WVS had mounted a massive campaign for the donation of food and clothing for the returning heroes, many of whom, cold and hungry, were also European, and thus in a strange country.  Public response was overwhelming and I agreed, as soon as my work on the farm had finished, that I’d meet Madeline and assist at West Manning station. 

To this purpose, I was given permission to finish my Land Army duties early each day. I would arrive at West Manning at about four in the afternoon, often remaining until the early hours of the morning, to then be faced with cycling the two miles home in the dark.  Not that it was ever really dark anymore, the skies being constantly illuminated by the battle on the French coast. The precious provisions were piled waist-high in the station waiting room.  We women carried wicker baskets of supplies, and tin mugs.  It was my job to move along the line of men leaning from the windows and pour strong hot tea into the mugs. They were remarkably cheerful, considering their ordeal.  Those in the first dispatches had been able to rest and tidy themselves up in Margate, but as the days went on and the numbers increased, so did the deterioration in the physical condition of the troops.  I was transferred from tea duty. Instead of a basket of provisions, I carried a bucket of soapy water and clean rags, which I passed up to the men, who were grateful to remove the grime of war from their faces.

On the third day of the evacuation,  I was snatching a catnap in the waiting room, when I was woken by a gentle tap on my forearm. I opened my eyes to see Mabel sitting beside me.  We hadn’t been in touch recently, events having overtaken us.  “Mabel.” I couldn’t hide my delight. “Oh Mabel, Mabel, how are you?  What are you doing here? Isn’t it awful, and this is only the beginning. And the men! So brave, so cheerful, in spite of what they’ve been through.”

“I know love, oh don’t I know. I’ve come here to do the same as you, help out in any way I can. The factory’s let some of us off for a couple of days, so I  volunteered. How’s Bruce? Is he all right?”

“That’s just it Mabel, we don’t know. And we don’t know about Dad either and it’s all this not knowing.  It’s getting us all down.”  My voice broke.

“Don’t I know it, like I said, I know what it’s like.  Already been through it before and look what happened.  Thought I was lucky at first when my Nat came back, but he came back a wreck of a man, gas got his lungs, as you know. He died not long after, in agony.”  She paused, realising what she’d said. “Of course, I wasn’t meaning your Bruce will end up the same.  It’s not as bad as the last war, yet.”

“Oh Mabel, how thoughtless of me, I’d forgotten you’d been  through one war already. And your stepson, Fred? He’s in the Kent Royal Artillery, isn’t he?  Wasn’t he posted in France?”

“Too right he was, dear. But he’s home now, safe and sound, thank Gawd.  That’s why I’m here, like. A way to give my thanks. His was one of the first divisions that got evacuated.  Back at home all safe n sound.  But what’s this about your Dad?  How could he be involved?”

I explained about Dad, Saunders and the Lady Dot. Mabel declared he was a bloody hero, but no wonder Mother was worried.  “But,” she reassured. “If Doctor said he was to go, I reckon he’ll be protected.  Don’t you?” I couldn’t hold her gaze, and looked away, muttering a reply.

“ I don’t know, Mabel, I really don’t.  Doctor and Dad’s clairvoyance has been a fact of life since I was a child, but no one has ever asked any of us what we thought about it all.  It’s a strange way to have been brought up.  It’s not as if I disbelieve, but if there really is a God, why is he letting this terrible war happen?  And if there is no God, then who is Doctor?  We used to be taunted in school, you know. People said the devil or some evil spirit possessed our father. So you tell me.”  I broke off, as the stationmaster’s whistle rent the air.

For the next hour we were busily employed tending to the needs of the troops. When the train had departed, Mabel and I sat down again, both clasping welcome tin mugs of tea and bloater paste sandwiches.

“About what you said, Grace.” Mabel began. “I think your Dad does have a special gift and Doctor is a good spirit.  Look at all the people he’s helped.  Why, even I’ve seen miracles, over in the big house.  And in the healing rooms.  I’ve helped clean them in my day, and the feeling in there is… well it’s different. Makes you feel all relaxed. At peace.”

I looked at my friend’s earnest face, surprised by her sensitivity. Relieved, I responded.“ Thanks Mabel. I know you’re right, but sometimes…. Oh well, it doesn’t matter now, does it? All that matters is that Dad’s safe!”

“And my boy.” The words burst out, and she raised her hands to cover her mouth, as if she’d spoken out of turn.

“What about him?” I was oblivious to the fact that I was clutching at the worn sleeve of her jacket, that I was raising my voice. “What about Stan?  Why have you stopped?  Is he all right?”

“Oh yes, he’s all right, far as I know.  Safe as houses.  He’s gone down to Margate with the Home Guard to help the troops off the ships.  They’re not bombing Margate, are they?”

Now she sounded worried. “Of course not Mabel.” I enthused, although having not the faintest idea whether they were bombing Margate even as we spoke. “From what Dad said before he left, and he’s close to Dowding, the RAF aim to keep the Jerries away from the beaches at Dunkirk, so how could they get through to Margate?”

“You’re right Grace, you’re right.  I’m glad I told you about it, I feel better now.” She smiled her relief, tawny eyes bright.

‘Poor Mabel,’ I thought. She looked like an old woman, especially when she smiled, as she’d lost most of her teeth.  People like her couldn’t afford to go to the dentist. “What about Fred?”

Mabel told me the story of his rescue.  Apparently, his unit had managed to get to the beaches, but the operation had only just started, so they had a long wait.  Although the enemy’s main target was the harbour and the ships lying offshore (one of them with my father aboard), this didn’t mean the beaches remained unscathed. 

“He told me how the men were grovelling in the sand, with the town burning behind them and bombs lighting the sky.  There they stayed, cold and hungry, until the first light of dawn when the Jerries started throwing everything they’d got at them.  Bombs and mortar pummelled the ground. They’d already marched eight miles.  They  burrowed in the dunes like rabbits, with men dying all around. Then they had to march into the sea up to their necks, waiting to be picked up.  But the smaller boats couldn’t get to them, and the bigger boats couldn’t get close to shore, so when night came, they had to go back onto the beach.

Fred was so knackered, he dropped into the nearest trench and fell asleep. He woke up as dawn broke to see a French burial party alongside him. His trench was a bleeding grave. That really broke him up.  A bit later, he managed to wade out to a small boat. He said he wouldn’t have got out if our Spitfires hadn’t made a grand entry and warded the Jerries off!” I listened to Fred’s story with growing horror. “Oh, my Gawd, you’re drip white. What am I doing telling you this when your father and brother are still there? Need my head examining I do.”

I put my arm around her narrow shoulders.  I could feel her bones through the thin material of her jacket. “ Not at all, Mabel,” I lied.“ I already knew most of it, from the wireless and from the soldiers here.  I’m sure Dad and Bruce will come through, the same way Fred did.  Now, don’t you think you should get home and see to the war hero?  I’ll carry on here for a bit longer.” I arranged a lift for her in the farm’s dilapidated lorry, in which we Land girls were taking turns to carry the exhausted troops and helpers to their homes or billets.  I stayed on doing tea duty until the early hours, and then cycled back to my flat to snatch some sleep. As usual, the distant boom of the battle serenaded me on my journey home, the continuous violet hues of phosphorus illuminating my way.

I managed to pop in to the Cottage on route to the station the next day.  It was glorious weather, the sky a clear azure blue. Approaching from the rear of the house, I was struck by the magnificence of the gardens.  The Canterbury Bells nodded gently in the late afternoon breeze, outlined against the backdrop of magenta peonies, which were Mother’s pride and joy.  The bewitching scent of mignonette and sweet alyssum enveloped me as I made my way up to the French windows.  Mother was stooped over her bed of annuals just outside. The golden cap of her hair was exposed to the warm rays of the sun, her hat, having slipped off, hung by its fastenings at the back of her neck.

I almost gasped, when, caught unawares, my stepmother raised her head, tears glistening on her cheeks.  She was such a private, controlled person. I’d rarely seen her cry.  She quickly turned away to wipe her eyes, and I gave her time to compose herself by wandering around the garden and making comments on the splendour of the flowers.  Finally, when she was ready to talk, she signalled by asking how I was.  I walked over to her again, the heady aroma of new mown grass and the scent of the flowers blurring my senses.  I was desperately tired, and for once, Mother seemed to notice.  She insisted I sit down on the wrought iron bench and have some refreshment before going on to the station. Madeline, who had been skulking in the drawing room, joined us on the terrace. 

Thus passed a desultory conversation, none of us daring to acknowledge the gnawing terror that accompanied our every waking moment.  There was still no news of Dad or Bruce.  I tried to lighten the atmosphere by relaying some of the anecdotes I’d heard at the station.  All would have been well if I hadn’t mentioned meeting Mabel.  The mere sound of her name incensed Mother.

“Please, Grace, don’t even speak of that selfish, ungrateful woman.  After all we did for her when she was ill, besides providing her with employment for so many years.  To refuse your father, when he nearly begged her to come back. The sheer arrogance of it all!  This war is giving people ideas above their station.”

Looking over at her, eyes now hard, I wondered how this could be the same woman for whom I’d felt such tenderness earlier on.  I’d really thought we were getting closer, but she hadn’t changed one iota.  I left as soon as possible, having once more hardened my heart against my stepmother.

The last of the troops were lifted from Dunkirk on 4th June. I had now worked at two jobs continuously for eight days, and was nearly out of my mind with lack of sleep.  There was still no news, and I didn’t feel I could share my worry with Mother after her comments about Mabel, who hadn’t been down to the station again. She must have returned to work.  We would need as many weapons as possible if we were to hold off the enemy invasion and I’d heard the factories were all on overtime.  I refused to acknowledge my deeper fear concerning her absence, that Stan had been injured in Margate. 

Madeline didn’t come to the Station either.  She was withering away at the Cottage, having sunk further into depression as the days and nights passed by with still no news of her husband. ‘We should hear very soon now,’ I told myself, as the last train pulled in.  It was a foggy night, and difficult to see the soldiers through the haze of steam and mist.  I was on driving duty and this was my final pick up before throwing my aching body into bed for a few hours’ restless sleep.  The endless gunfire had faded into the distance and the fog obliterated the iridescence of the battle. This meant a tortuous drive in the dark before I was finished.  I stood alongside the lorry, listening to the shrill of the guard’s whistle and the hiss of steam as the train screeched to a halt.  Then the slamming of doors as the final passengers alighted.  The outline of two figures gradually emerged from within the station doorway and became more distinct as they approached the vehicle.  One of them looked achingly familiar. It was Stan.

My heart lurched in my breast. Overcome by the emotional upheaval of the past few days, I didn’t stop to consider my actions as I raced through the dark towards him.  Then I was in his arms, tears of relief streaming down my face. I inhaled the wonderful aroma of tobacco that clung to his collar, mixed now with the acrid scent of cordite. Gently, he cupped the back of my neck and tilted my head so I was looking up into his beautiful liquid eyes.

“Grace.” He whispered, and then his lips were on mine. The rapture of his kiss transported me to another place, another time, where the only war that raged was our passion for each other. His lips finally left mine and, as I leaned into him, Mabel’s wise words came back to me. 

‘You were right Mabel.’ I thought. ‘I am sweet on him.  In fact, I do believe, I’m in love with him.’ Inclining my head, I laughed aloud.

His body tensed. He pushed me from him, his hands like iron manacles about my wrists.  “What’s so funny?” He hissed.

I stopped, looked boldly into his narrowed eyes. “Nothing’s funny, nothing at all. I’m laughing because I’m pleased to see you.  I’m so very pleased to see you, I suppose you could say I’m laughing for joy.” His face relaxed, mouth curving in a crooked smile before he pulled me into a suffocating embrace. 

“I suppose that’s all right then.” He breathed in my ear.  “Let’s get out of here, shall we?”  And we did.


Sebastian

 

And so, that is how it all began, the association which brought the war to the Simmonds family. Or was it the war that brought about the association? Grace’s stepmother, Bella, thinks so. She’d prefer to remain neutral, to let nature run its course.  She’s certain such an incompatible relationship cannot last. Anyway, she has more pressing problems to deal with, as we’re about to learn…..

 

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