Chapter seven of my free-to-read novel. If you’d like to begin at the beginning, please click Conversations At Table in the May archive on the right of the page and to progress through, click the links.
It certainly isn’t going to be finished quickly. The British Expeditionary Force and the other Allied armies have collapsed before the unstoppable might of the German invaders and have retreated in disarray with huge loss of life and vast amounts of equipment, many thousands being plucked to safety from the beaches of Dunkirk by an armada of boats, large and small. The Belgian army has been crushed and France is only days away from capitulation. In later, safer years the operation will come to be nostalgically celebrated as a glorious and heroic episode in the history of Britain, but just now, it feels anything but. It’s a terrifying, frantic retreat, with the overwhelming fear that the Germans will follow on and invade before the Allies have time to re-group and resist.
Supper time. A somewhat bland, ration-restricted meal. Juniper, Herbert, Maureen and Dickie (Bill, of course, is at nearby RAF Cranwell aerodrome). The evacuation is almost complete with thousands of British soldiers (and some of other nationalities too) safely back in Blighty. Well, in comparative safety. So long as the Germans don’t launch an immediate follow-up invasion, which would mean certain defeat. The ragged, depleted, weary, equipment-lacking Expeditionary Force and small home-based reserves would be no match for the invader. Britain would go the same way as poor France and Belgium.
So whilst on the one hand there is relief at the deliverance of the British army, it is mixed with palpable fear this evening. Although Mr Churchill, now prime minister in the emergency coalition government, had delivered with soaring oratory a stirring, morale-boosting address to parliament the previous day and reported in the newspapers today, all about fighting on beaches and landing grounds and in fields and streets, and defiantly declaring that ‘we shall never surrender,’ the mood isn’t upbeat.
He feels far from positive, but Herbert tries to put a positive spin on things, if only for the sake of Juniper and Maureen. (Dickie is too young to understand the ramifications of what is going on; in his innocent fifteen-year-old boy’s mind it’s all a thrilling adventure, although he’s vaguely worried and disappointed that the British have had to retreat.)
‘Well,’ Herbert says, trying to sound confident, ‘Mr Churchill says that in spite of this setback, we inflicted heavier losses in the air than they did. We seem to have superiority there, at least. We certainly aren’t beaten.’
‘Mm, that’s something, I suppose,’ Juniper says dully. In spite of Herbert’s reassurances, she’s still worried about Bill at Cranwell. She doubts whether he’s completely safe.
Dickie says, as if reading his mother’s mind, ‘I’m going to join the RAF when I’m old enough. As a pilot though. I want to fly a Spitfire!’
Juniper rounds on him, her eyes blazing. ‘Oh no you don’t! You’re just a child; you’ve no idea. No idea what war is about. It’s not some adventurous game. People die in it, like your Uncle Walter did. And he was barely a man. And your father should be a constant reminder of what it can do to people even if it doesn’t kill them. Now don’t be so stupid!’
Dickie blushes angrily. Why is Mum picking on him, making him look small, when he’s just trying to be patriotic? The country is facing an enemy, isn’t it?
‘But – ‘
Herbert says, trying to head off an argument, an all-too-familiar one, ‘Your mother’s right. The reality isn’t at all what you imagine it is. Believe me, I know; I couldn’t wait to get stuck in in the first one, answering Kitchener’s call and all that, but I soon found out what it was really like. It was terrible, believe me. And she’s simply worried. She’s worried about your brother.’
‘I know, but – ‘
‘Anyway, you couldn’t be a pilot. Pilots are commissioned officers, and the likes of us don’t become officers.’
Dickie is crestfallen. ‘Oh . . .’
‘And besides, it’ll probably all be over by the time you’re old enough. At least I hope it will.’
‘So do I,’ says Juniper, fervently. ‘Apart from anything else, I’m getting fed up with the rationing. First bacon and butter and sugar, so it’s getting harder and harder to make decent cakes, and now proper eggs as well. What can you do with just one egg per person per week, I ask you? The dried things just aren’t the same. And tea. You can’t even have a decent cuppa whenever you want it now.’
‘Aye,’ Herbert says, ‘Still, at least there’ll be some carrots and parsnips and cabbage from the vegetable patch soon. It was a shame to have to dig the lawn up, but needs must. We’ve got to dig for victory, as the government keeps telling us to.’
‘Yes, that”ll be good. But then I suppose we shouldn’t really complain about not being able to buy whatever we want,’ Juniper says, feeling a little guilty for complaining. ‘It’s not as if we’re actually starving, is it?’
‘No, that’s true,’ Herbert agrees. ‘And I was piling on too many pounds, anyway.’
The feared land invasion did not come but attack from the skies certainly did. For nine desperate months the outnumbered RAF has fought the fighter planes of the Luftwaffe with huge losses on both sides until, finally, Hitler seems to have given up on that strategy. Britain is not going to be defeated, nor is she going to be cowed. Tensions are still high though because now there’s yet another threat: bombing, of London and many other cities, particularly industrial ones. And now, although ports and industrial areas might be the target, it’s the civilian population which is really suffering. The destruction and loss of life is terrible.
Britain is still on the back foot, with no end to the nightmare in sight.
Sunday lunchtime. Juniper, Herbert, Maureen and Dickie. It’s a far cry from the traditional roast affair; a decent joint of beef or anything else is like a distant treasured memory now. The best Juniper can do is save most of the meat ration for Sunday and, with produce from the erstwhile lawn, now vegetable patch, concoct a reasonably acceptable hot pot. They glumly discuss the BBC’s midday news bulletin, which they’ve just listened to. With grim familiarity, it carried news of the previous night’s bombing raid on London. The docks have been hit yet again, with many residential areas taking a battering too.
‘Whenever is it all going to end?’ Juniper addresses the family in general.
Herbert sighs. ‘I really don’t know. It’s a terrible business. But at least we aren’t defeated and occupied. We aren’t under the Nazi jackboot. That’s something, I suppose.’
‘No, not like France. And other countries over there.’
‘True. Although not all France is occupied, of course. The Vichey part isn’t. Although it might just as well be as it’s run by collaborators.’
‘Well’, Juniper says, ‘even if they can’t fight back any more, at least they’re still basically free. And they aren’t getting bombed every night, like our poor people.’
Herbert grunts non-commitally. He knows she has a point, but he doubts whether you can really do deals with Nazis. Hitler hasn’t exactly got a good record for keeping his word, as Chamberlain found out.
‘But it must be terrible for those in the north, being under the thumb, I must admit,’ Juniper adds.
‘Aye; at least in the last war they were only occupied on the eastern side of the front line.’
Dickie wants to express his opinion about the bravery of the French resistance fighters and broach the subject of joining the home guard. After all, he’s turned sixteen now, and Bill’s doing his bit, so why shouldn’t he? (although he must confess; all those times the Luftwaffe attacked Cranwell, strafing and bombing, destroying the aircraft on the ground, it sounded pretty scary).
But he keeps quiet. His mother will only have another fit and give him a mouthful, and his father won’t back him up either. Dickie can’t understand that, as he was a soldier in the last war. It all seems very staightforward to him. And anyway, Lisbeth’s Sid has been conscripted now, to do his bit, into the Royal Engineers on the basis of his practical building experience, although he won’t be seeing any action until the Allies invade France, whenever that is.
Maureen suddenly speaks. ‘Erm, there was a government thing came to the bank last Friday. A leaflet. Mr Baxter showed it to us. It was asking for people with good mathematical brains to volunteer for really important work, although it didn’t say what.’
Herbert’s ears prick. ‘Oh, yes?’
‘Perhaps it was to be a spy!’ Dickie volunteers.
‘Do shut up, Dickie,’ Juniper snaps. ‘Of course it wasn’t.’
‘Whatever it is, Mr Baxter thinks it must be really important for the war effort. He’s intrigued. So am I. I think I should volunteer; see if they think I’m brainy enough!’
Juniper shakes her head doubtfully. But Herbert is interested. ‘And there was no clue at all as to what it might have been about?’
‘No, nothing. There was just a phone number to ring to arrange an interview if you’re interested. Mr Baxter said if any of us were, we could use his office to do it in private.’
‘And do you want to, then?’
‘Yes, I think I do. I’m eighteen now and it’s time I did something useful. Before I get conscripted to be a land girl, or something boring like that. And if it really is important, so much the better.’
‘Then I think you should. Don’t you agree, Mother?’ Herbert looks questioningly at Juniper.
‘Well, I don’t know, I’m sure. I’m not keen if it’s something dangerous . . .’
‘Oh, I shouldn’t think it is, it sounds like some sort of desk job for the government. It’s probably very safe. You do it, if you want to, Maureen. It looks as though you’d have to move to London though.’
‘Exactly,’ Juniper protests, ‘that’s just what I mean!’
Dickie quietly seethes. Now Maureen is going to do something for the war effort as well. It isn’t fair!
The dynamic of the war has changed since America entered the conflict following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the previous December. Now the war is being taken to Germany, with nightly bombing raids which are hugely costly in lives. There is fighting in North Africa, attacking Italy from the south. As for the Wilkins and Staunton families, Maureen is doing her mysterious government job and is engaged; Bill is still at Cranwell and has married, in some haste, a WAAF girl; Dickie, still frustrated by lack of involvement in the war effort, is working at the town’s maltings by day and reporting to the Home Guard in the evening; and Earnest has moved back to the Sleaford area.
Supper time. Herbert, Juniper and Maureen, home on brief leave from her top secret work. Dickie has bolted down his meal, changed into his uniform and rushed out to Dad’s Army. Juniper is thrilled to have Maureen home for a rare if brief visit. Whatever her mysterious work is, about which she’s completely tight-lipped, it must be very important if she gets so little leave. The location of this mysterious activity is totally secret too. They are allowed to write letters to Maureen, but they must be addressed to a department within the war ministry, and they will be opened and scrutinised before being forwarded. And they have to be ‘approved persons’ writing to her. Similarly, letters back from Maureen bear the same government department address and the stamp of the official censor.
For once, there is much family news to catch up on and the war takes a back seat. Well, almost. Herbert says, ‘So you’re not going to give us even a tiny little clue about what you do, Maureen?’
Maureen laughs. ‘No! You try this every time, don’t you, Dad? As I always say, I’ve signed the Official Secrets Act. You know what the goverment says: careless talk costs lives.’
‘What, even talking to your own family? We’re hardly going to spill state secrets if you’re some sort of spy, or something, are we?’
But Maureen won’t budge. She won’t tell them where she works; whether it’s in London or somewhere else
‘No, perhaps you and Mum wouldn’t, but I wouldn’t trust our Dickie to keep his trap shut. He’d be bragging to his mates and then it’d be all over Sleaford in no time, and then the world. And if they found out I’d been blabbing, they’d have my guts for garters. I’d probably end up in the Tower of London.’
She giggles again. ‘Anyway, I know very little myself; only what I absolutely need to, to do my job. That’s what they call it: “need to know”‘.
‘Well it does sound like spying to me,’ Herbert grins. Maureen remains poker-faced. ‘Will you please stop going on about it? I can’t even talk to Jonathan about what I do, and he works at the same place!’
Mention of Jonathan gives Juniper an exit from the subject. She finds it a little tiresome, the way Herbert always teasingly tries to extract information from their daughter. ‘And how is this young man of yours? Are you allowed to tell us about him then?’
‘Well, up to a point. But nothing concerning what he does, obviously.’
‘Yes, I understand that. When do you think you might marry?’
‘Oh, some time next year, probably.’ Maureen seems quite off-hand about it.
‘Mm; you’re not rushing into it like Bill and Iris did, then?’
‘No! Well, you know what it might be a case of with them, don’t you?’
Juniper pauses for a moment, thinking, before the penny drops. It hadn’t occurred to her. ‘Oh, I see what you mean. No; surely not? Lot’s of young people marry quickly these days. It’s the uncertainty and everything.’
Maureen laughs again. ‘Yes, I know, Mum. Call me cynical, but I bet Iris will be taking some enforced leave before too long, all the same, and there’ll be a new little member of the family. A cousin to Lisbeth’s June.’
‘Well I hope not. I don’t think I want to see a child born into this mad world just now, thank you very much.’
‘Yes, I agree. That’s why Jonathan and I won’t start a family when we marry. But anyway, we both need to keep working. It’s too important . . .’ Maureen dries up. She’s almost saying too much. She deftly changes the subject. ‘And has my little brother started courting yet?’
Juniper smiles. ‘I shouldn’t think so. Not that we know of, anyway. He’s busy with his home guard duties every night. He certainly takes it all very seriously, although he grumbles a bit about some of the older men there. He says they just can’t keep up.’
‘The cheeky little devil!’ Herbert mutters. They’re very brave men. I bet some of them were in the first bloody nonsense, before he was born!’
Juniper changes the subject again, mindful of Herbert’s blood pressure. ‘Oh, and your uncle Earnest has moved back up this way.’
‘They’ve requisitioned the old Raunceby hospital outside town. Do you know the one I mean? They’ve turned it into a burns treatment centre as there have been so many pilots burned. Apparently he’s working with one of the top plastic surgeons, although he’s pretty senior himself now, of course.’
‘Oh, good for him!’
‘Yes, it’s wonderful, isn’t it?’
‘Aye, poor buggers,’ Herbert says. ‘Who’d have thought Earnest would be fixing up war injuries again?’ He knows about that, only too well.
The tide of the war does seem to be turning. Italy has surrendered following the Allies’ invasion from North Africa and Mussolini has received summary lethal justice, although the Germans are still there, putting up stiff resistance. Huge numbers of American military personnel are in Britain (‘overpaid, over-sexed and over here’) with their greater affluence, seducing the womenfolk with silk stockings, Glenn Miller gramaphone records, chewing gum, greenbacks and general glamorousness, sometimes to the resentment of the local men. Some are airmen, flying on bombing raids from bases in eastern England; most are troops massing and training for the invasion of France.
Supper time. Juniper and Herbert. There is no fear hanging heavy now, just a general war-weariness. The threat of invasion is a thing of the past, now America is on board. It’s not like the dark days of forty and forty-one. They’ve listened to the early evening news bulletin, which has positive reports of Allied advances up the spine of Italy, driving the retreating Axis forces before them. Herbert confidently asserts that Hitler is on the back foot now. ‘Aye,’ he says between mouthfuls of meatless pie, ‘it’s only a matter of time now. Although it’ll take a while to dislodge him, I reckon. So it could still be another year or more.’
‘Well, it can’t come soon enough,’ Juniper says, sighing. ‘There’s been quite enough killing and destruction. Let’s get back to living in peace. And an end to rationing,’ she adds, mournfully, looking at her own plate. But at least her fear for Bill’s safety has subsided now that the airfields are rarely attacked. The Luftwaffe visits the skies around Sleaford much less often now.
And Dickie isn’t likely to be put in harm’s way either. Rather to his disappointment, he hasn’t been conscripted into the army, ready for the invasion, when it comes, but has been selected as a Bevan Boy, so his contribution to the war effort lies in hacking coal at a pit over in Nottinghamshire. He’s in lodgings with a miner and his family there during the week.
There’s one little ray of sunshine in Juniper’s life though: Bill and Iris’s baby Phyllis. Iris’s mother lives in Sleaford and looks after the baby most of the time, allowing Iris to return to her duties at Cranwell. So Juniper is able to visit her new little granddaughter easily. She’s done so that day.
‘And how is little Phyllis?’ Herbert asks, changing to a pleasanter subject.
‘Oh, she’s fine. Nine months old already! She’ll soon be walking, by the look of things.’
‘Yes. I know I’ve said I didn’t want any more babies coming into our family while this dreadful war is going on, but one day it’ll be over.’
‘Aye, it will, dear.’
There’s a faraway look in Juniper’s eyes. ‘Yes, as Vera Lynn keeps singing, “There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover. Tomorrow, just you wait and see.” I love that song. It’s so hopeful, isn’t it?’
‘It certainly is. And I think we can dare to hope that there might be, now. Well, not bluebirds of course. We don’t get them in England. Swallows, perhaps, but not bluebirds.’
‘Why do they say bluebirds then?’
‘I think I heard somewhere that it was written by Americans. You wouldn’t think that, would you? Perhaps they have bluebirds over there and they didn’t know that we don’t!’
Juniper laughs. ‘Maybe so. Well if she sang: “blue birds” – two words, which it does sound like – it would make sense. Then they could be swallows.’
‘Yes, you’re right.’
Juniper wants to return to the previous subject. ‘Anyway, it is nice to have another little grandchild, I must admit. Another baby. Lisbeth’s June is getting such a big girl now; nearly ten. Doesn’t time fly?’
‘I wonder if Maureen and Jonathan really will put off having children now they’re married. Perhaps they’ll change their minds.’
‘I’ve no idea. It’s up to them though, isn’t it? If this mysterious thing they’re doing for the government is really that important, perhaps Maureen means what she says, and they do both need to keep working.’
‘Mm; perhaps so.’
‘I’d still love to know what it is though. And Maureen let slip that Jonathan speaks fluent German, and then looked as if she regretted saying it. I wonder if that’s significant?’
Juniper laughs. ‘Well, they’re certainly never going to tell us if it is, that’s clear. I must admit, I feel slightly offended that she won’t confide in her own parents even a tiny bit!’
‘Well, she’s got a very strong sense of duty, at least. I think that’s good, don’t you?’
‘Yes, I suppose so.’
His vegetarian meal finished, Herbert places his knife and fork tidily on his plate. ‘And one day, perhaps, when this is all over, the truth will come out and we’ll know.’